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“Sounding board for the city”: Presidents of Residents forum providing valuable counsel to council

“Sounding board for the city”: Presidents of Residents forum providing valuable counsel to council
David Schout

Established during COVID-19 to collate feedback from well-connected locals, the “Presidents of Residents” forum is now a permanent part of decision-making at Town Hall.

At the height of COVID-19, decision-makers at the City of Melbourne needed advice on how to best help a local population that, like the rest of the state, was struggling.

Many locals were stuck inside for large parts of the week, shopfront vacancy signs were increasing by the day, and international students were seeking assistance in huge numbers.

The council needed on-the-ground feedback from residents and established a working group on the run to help with that.

To this day, the group remains a cog in the decision-making machine at Town Hall and having moved on from providing pandemic-related ideas for assistance, it now advises on things like safety, planning and transport.

Named the “Presidents of Residents” group — a title that has since stuck — the forum assembles leaders from residents’ groups across the municipality, to garner both suburb-specific and city-wide ideas.

Representatives from both local residents’ groups — Southbank Residents’ Association (SRA) and Southbank3006 — regularly attend the meetings, and have been complimentary of its impact.

“It’s an excellent forum, because it creates another channel for residents’ groups to have exposure to council officers on key policy issues,” Southbank3006 president David Hamilton said.

“It also enables the council to take up on a citywide basis the same policy issue, but fine-tune for different areas … for a capital city council, I think it’s a very interesting initiative.”

SRA president Tony Penna, who has been involved since the forum’s inception, said having face-to-face interactions with decision-makers was important.

“I find it informative and feel it is a great forum to have the ear of the Lord Mayor, simultaneously with other presidents to learn that many may be experiencing the same issues,” he said.

Both said the interaction with nearby residents’ groups in the CBD and Docklands was particularly beneficial, as they experienced similar issues as mixed-use areas with a high percentage of high-rise locals.

“In a perfect world, I would break it into two groups; CBD, Docklands and Southbank, and the others,” Mr Penna said.

“The reason for this is that the issues are all very similar within those groups therefore the time is more efficiently used for issues which are relative.”

President of Drill Hall Residents’ Association in the CBD, Martin Mulvihill, told Southbank News the forum was an exercise that simply made sense.

“The City [of Melbourne] should be proud of it,” Mr Mulvihill said.

“I think it works … it acts as a kind of sounding board or feedback system for the city.”

President of fellow CBD residents’ group EastEnders Dr Stan Capp said the endeavour had become a “very valuable forum”.

Dr Capp and other community leaders had pushed for last year’s “Safety Summit” — which brought together the City of Melbourne, Victoria Police, residents’ groups, and stakeholders to address key issues facing the city — which he cites as an example of forum suggestions put into action.

“It’s been an opportunity to raise issues and have them considered — and I think they’re always offered and considered in a respectful environment,” he said.

“I think we can have a free and open discussion about anything we like, quite frankly. It’s been a good forum for that.”

Lord Mayor Sally Capp was central to the group’s establishment in 2020 and, along with Deputy Lord Mayor Nicholas Reece, regularly convenes with the group.

Cr Capp’s office put together an agenda for each meeting (they also open the floor for discussion points) and invite presenters to speak with the community leaders.

Recently, this included representatives from both e-scooter companies currently heading a 12-month trial within the city — Lime and Neuron.

The companies were informed by the Presidents of Residents group of particular hotspots and pedestrian-heavy areas where scooters were being incorrectly parked on a regular basis.

The group is one of two ways the council has sought to improve communication between it and residents, the second being via online neighbourhood portals.

“All of the feedback provided by the presidents and via the portals is considered, and action is taken where feasible,” the Lord Mayor told Southbank News.

“City of Melbourne greatly values the insights gathered from the Presidents of Residents group and looks forward to achieving more positive and collaborative outcomes in future.”

While the group is seen as an example of how local government can utilise residents’ expertise to achieve positive outcome, there was still room for improvement according to participants.

“I think there’s a hunger to play a more hands-on role in direction-setting rather than necessarily just providing feedback, despite that being really important,” a Docklands Residents’ Group spokesperson said.

Mr Mulvihill added that the forum’s configuration probably did not span enough cohorts.

“It’s sort of unrepresentative, necessarily so because it’s dealing with established organisations like resident organisations,” Mr Mulvihill said.

“As such it probably cuts out the big young student and young people population generally in the city.” •

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