The UTAS relocation is rightly making constant headlines. A move as significant as this will undoubtedly have a major impact on our city. What also needs to be just as closely examined is how the Hobart City Council has managed their relationship with UTAS and responded to the University’s intention to relocate.
The Council must represent the community and to act in the community’s best interests. Naturally, the Council must also consistently apply sound governance principles and practices, especially when it comes to relationships with property developers.
For years the Council has stated its support for the university’s relocation. This is despite a clear lack of independent evidence that the relocation is in the community’s best interests or wanted by the community. It’s also despite the Council being unable to pinpoint when the Council voted to support the full relocation of the University. Surely a vote as significant as this would have been in an open Council meeting following proper community engagement? It appears not.
The Council has obtained minimal, if any, independent research on the concept of the relocation, and that most of the information the Council has put forward as studies relating to the relocation have come from UTAS itself, which means they don’t qualify as independent.
One independent report referenced is the 2010 Gehl report, where the concept of a university city is buried among dozens of other potential futures. This report refers to encouraging more education intuitions and departments into the city – it does not propose a full relocation of UTAS from Sandy Bay into the CBD.
The City Deal document signed by the then Prime Minister refers to building a STEM presence in the city, not a full relocation. In later documents the City Deal morphed into supporting the full relocation. Again, nothing was out in the open regarding this change. The public is left to guess what happened in the Council’s closed Finance and Governance Meeting of December 2018 in relation to the City Deal.
While planning processes provide opportunity to comment on individual applications, they do not allow for comment on the relocation concept itself. The Council has not proactively asked the community what its views are on UTAS’ full relocation and the major redevelopment of Sandy Bay, despite the relocation being the biggest change to our city in decades. It took petitioning the Council for a public meeting for the community to start to be heard.
Transparency is also severely lacking. Following an invite from UTAS, the Lord Mayor, Deputy Lord Mayor and other Council representatives have met with UTAS at least nine times under the guise of an ironically named Governance Forum. The university’s invite to form this group makes it clear that the focus would be providing a “coordinated approach” to its relocation to the city.
A response to my right to information request for the meeting papers associated with the Governance Forum was recently denied in full, with the Council pinning the blame for this on UTAS. Not even redacted agendas. This reflects terribly on both parties and raises serious questions around the purpose of these meetings, what there is to hide, and the potential for special deals. Transparency is critical to accountability, scrutiny, and public trust.
There are also blatant and dangerous double standards at play. A few years ago, the then Councillor Anna Reynolds was broadcast on local television stating that the cable car project should be “put forward in public, put forward in an open way, no more secret meetings, no more special deals”. By participating in the secrecy of the Governance Forum this is exactly what the Council has delivered for UTAS.
These and other critical matters were discussed at a Council Committee meeting held on Tuesday last week . Outcomes of the meeting will be taken to full Council, where, if passed, will be a small but essential turning point in what has been a very tainted professional relationship between our Council and university.
Tonight, Council will vote on whether to disband the Governance Forum and on the release of closed Council meeting papers relating to the City Deal. The Council will also write to UTAS encouraging them to support the release of the Governance Forum meeting documents.
Good governance exists to ensure the community can have trust in its Council. Council must take immediate action to repair broken trust and to prevent this situation from occurring again.
The Council must ensure that the community’s best interests come first, that decisions are based on sound information, and that the community is asked its opinion on significant city shaping matters. And critically, the Council must understand that transparency is paramount, and is not something that can be opted in and out of depending on whether individual councillors do or don’t like the proposal.