Recently Wodonga Council received two proposals that have the potential to undermine years of courageous and persistent advocacy and destroy the community aspirations for a new city heart.
A ratepayer would need to cast their minds back to the early 2000s for the proposed marriage of Albury and Wodonga as "One City", to recall an event that has galvanised the Wodonga community more than the proposal to build a Dan Murphy's on Junction Place land.
For 12 years, Wodonga Council embarked upon a bold and costly advocacy for the removal of the railway line from our CBD.
The rationale was to create a new city heart within its CBD. This land is now known as Junction Place.
Good work had been done. A master planning exercise led by Development Victoria was undertaken involving numerous parties including community reference groups, councillors, neighbouring property owners and the broader community.
This was a genuine, inclusive and robust engagement that helped inform the Junction Place master plan.
A month ago it was revealed a planning application with the consent of Development Victoria as the landowner, had been lodged with council for a Dan Murphy's.
The application was to replace a permit approved cinema development, which had failed to start.
A tsunami of ratepayer opposition to the Dan Murphy's proposal has emerged.
The proposal is a big miss on community expectations. It is contrary to the existing master plan and not what the community signed up for. Likewise, the proposal contradicts council's own CBD Revitalisation Plan and Municipal Health and Wellbeing Plan.
The community subsequently learnt that Development Victoria was lodging a new master plan with council.
In a further eye-popping revelation this week Development Victoria confirmed it had been working on a revised master plan with council and Junction Place developers for eight months.
Councillors have told community members they first saw the revised master plan only a fortnight ago.
Can the community assume it has been only council officers who have been working with Development Victoria and Junction Place developers?
Disturbingly, council's chief executive Mark Dixon told The Border Mail: "The new revised master plan is not required to come before council for determination". Decoded, that means it won't be referred to councillors for approval or rejection.
It is highly concerning that the community has no further input into decision making on land they spent 12 years advocating for.
This is not genuine consultation or engagement. Far from it.
Even more concerning is elected councillors also have been sidelined from having any meaningful input.
But there are many reasons councillors must have a role in strongly influencing the revised master plan.
They represent the people of Wodonga, their remit is strategy, risk management and reputational risk and on all three parameters the lights are flashing red.
For councillors not to be part of decision making on an updated master plan for the most strategic parcel of land in Wodonga's CBD, is a diminution of their roles and an insult to the 18,000 ratepayers who elected them.
While it may be within the chief executive's delegated authority to be making a decision to approve or reject Development Victoria's new master plan, this is not an operational issue.
Even if it were operational, there are many precedents of issues of delegated authority being referred back to councillors when public interest is high.
Never since the proposal of the merger of the two cities has there been such objection from the Wodonga community to a proposal. A total of 2700 petitions and 120 written objections is proof of that.
This is an issue of great public interest, strategic implication, risk to the ongoing development of Junction Place and has potential for huge reputational damage to the council.
The community rightly has two questions to ask.
Firstly,why are councillors not insisting the master plan be decided by them?
Secondly, why is Mr Dixon not referring the issue back to councillors to represent the interest of ratepayers? This is best practice.
Wodonga is fortunate to have this great opportunity to build a new city heart.
Let's not snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
The community has spoken, councillors have listened, now they must act.
Michael Gobel, former Wodonga Council director of investment attraction, is a company board director and regional economic development consultant.
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