Noosa Biosphere Reserve Foundation (NBRF) - Noosa Council Listens & Takes A Tentative Step

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Community Conservation Environment Gardens & Parks Noosa Council

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The supporting papers have been published for the next series of Noosa Council meetings which includes a proposal to change the funding arrangements of the Noosa Biosphere Reserve Foundation.

Despite some councillors insisting that critics of NBRF were merely “a noisy minority”, the proposal being put to council makes it clear that community criticism has been taken on board. As the papers note: “The Foundation has faced challenges associated with turnover in its board composition, community perceptions about the governance model and the need for transparency of its operations given the level of ratepayer funding being provided.”

Bull’s eye - and that this admission is offered is of credit to the council: no more bluffing; no more weasel words.

The remedy being proposed is that, while NBRF will still be provided with operational expenses of $140,000 in 2018-19, its guaranteed funding for project grants has been halved from $250,000 to $125,000.

(Operational funding in the current year has been a staggering 36% of total expenditure and it continues at this extraordinary – and unexplained – high rate.)

The $125,000 is a base and NBRF can apply for more project funds depending upon certain ill-defined criteria which are also not clarified in terms of how the process will be managed or who will make the decisions.

In the two out years of the proposed three-year funding deed, NBRF will have no guarantee of any project grants (operational funding will be negotiated) but will be awarded funds “on the merits of projects put forward.”
This is a welcome change which hopefully will not allow NBRF any special preference for council funding in competition with the very many other eligible organisations in the Shire that have not been receiving their fair share of ratepayer funding in the past.

It is worth noting that, for the first time, Noosa Council has revealed to ratepayers how much NBRF has cost in cash terms in its first four years – it is $1.58 million, an amount which gives credence to community concerns about whether NBRF was delivering value for money.

To other matters, and I am canvassing here only those of most importance that are raised in the council papers.

The council is now strongly encouraging NBRF to do something it was originally supposed to undertake but decided against – to start securing its own funds from external sources other than the council.

The council document admits NBRF has failed to pursue this and offers a range of excuses on its behalf but it is unequivocal in urging NBRF to now focus on its fundraising role. The target is modest - $50,000 in the first year and an additional $50,000 each year thereafter - but it’s a start.

However there is a key matter that remains unaddressed by the council: while the proposal mentions governance (“the Foundation is to provide details of changes they are instituting to improve its governance model”), it skirts the massive issue of the NBRF continuing to operate as a closed shop.

The council provides no clarity of what “improved governance” looks like and the issue of NBRF being closed to membership by the public undermines any real prospect of it moving to a position where it will be readily accepted by the community.

Under the new arrangements NBRF still has no alignment with UNESCO’s community-based model and, more importantly, it continues to fail to meet strong community demand for a more open and more democratically constituted organisation.

To integrate NBRF effectively in the Noosa community the council needs to spell out its expectations of what constitutes acceptable governance – for example, opening NBRF to community membership and insisting upon open and democratic elections for office bearers.

That operational funding grant of $140,000 should be withheld until there is a formal commitment from NBRF to start immediately on reforming its constitution to deliver on that task by the middle of 2019. Otherwise I can see NBRF being a hot issue all the way down to the next council election in March 2020 when the community may have the final say on its future.

On a related matter, the papers contains no direct mention of the Noosa Community Biosphere Association, supposedly established to provide a ‘community voice’ but which itself has been a troubled organisation, extraordinarily left without funds in the most recent NBRF grants program.

The truth is that NCBA – presumably set up originally as a sop to there being no true community representation on NBRF - would not be required were NBRF re-established as an open and democratic body instead of the closed shop it will continue to be even under these new arrangements.

If this new funding deed is passed by councillors, as seems a near certainty, it commits the council to a far greater role in its oversight of  NBRF, taking on many of the functions previously the sole responsibility of NBRF and making the final decisions on "whether to approve projects and associated Council grant funding".

And this really begs the question of why, if Council will have such a crucial and extensive role in relation to so much of what NBRF does, it needs an NBRF to allocate grants at all. The council has almost reached a point where it could comfortably incorporate the functions of NBRF, a solution which would be both more efficient and, given that council itself is a democratically elected body, provide the desired accountability to the community.

But, all that said, the council has shown it has been listening to community concern about NBRF and that it has taken a step to rein in the inefficient, fractious and sometimes excessive behaviour of an organisation that has never performed effectively and has lacked the support of the broader community.

The council must be complimented on the new position it is headed towards but reminded that NBRF still offers a closed door to the vast bulk of the residents and ratepayers of Noosa and, while this is so, will continue to be a thorny issue.

Footnote:
The NBRF changes are on the agenda at three forthcoming Noosa Council meetings, Probably the most interesting will be the General Committee. As the Council doesn’t yet offer full (or even any) minutes of all these meetings, and we haven’t got video streaming, you’ll need to attend in person or await Facebook coverage to find out in detail what transpires:

  • Planning & Environment Committee, Noosa Council Chambers, Tuesday 12 June, 9.30am
  • General Committee, Noosa Council Chambers, Monday 18 June, 10.00am
  • Ordinary Committee, Kin Kin (check Council website for venue), Thursday 21 June, 6:00pm

Keith Jackson AM

 
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