By Shane Scanlan
Some 100 days into the lord mayoralty, Sally Capp’s energy is undiminished and her learning along the way has sharpened her capacity to effect change.
It’s a very different council with Cr Capp in the chair. The council has become open and available. Collaboration and co-operation are present where, not so long ago, it was Robert Doyle’s way or the highway.
“I’ve been working so hard. And part of that is learning and part of that is doing. So it’s been full on. I’ve absolutely loved it,” she told CBD News.
And with the opportunity to help appoint a new CEO to match her style, it’s very easy to be upbeat about better connections between the council and the citizens.
“I’ve never done this before and, apart from the fact that I love going full pelt, we need to manage what ‘full pelt’ looks like to make sure it’s constructive for everybody and that we’re putting energies in the right places,” she said.
So what has she learned so far and what would she do differently if she had her time again?
“I genuinely didn’t realise the length and breadth of the services that they city gets involved in. It’s enormous,” Cr Capp said. “And the number of really dedicated people in this place is seriously fantastic.”
Cr Capp said long-time staff had told her the demand for lord mayoral attention had tripled since she assumed the role.
“I think that’s because there’s a new lord mayor, I think being a woman as well, and then just my own contacts and history in the city together with what I see as a renewed interest in the lord mayoralty – reinvigorated,” she said.
“I could fill the diary 10 times over. The amount of demand for the lord mayor’s time really surprises me. And all of that compounds into incredible demands on time. But it’s been great.”
Not such a nice surprise has been the layers of restraint imposed by the government system itself.
“I probably didn’t realise the amount of legal constraint. I find that overwhelming as well,” she said. “There’s a huge amount of control that’s put in place through the Local Government Act. The amount of time we spend on compliance is heartbreaking to me.”
“Over the decades we’ve built up these processes to protect the public’s interests. But boy, it takes up a huge amount of time and cost – making sure things are compliant with forms and double-checking. It’s quite mind-boggling.”
Her local government inexperience has also made her vulnerable because she accepted so many donations during her campaign.
Cr Capp said she and her husband thought they were doing the right thing by accepting smaller donations from more people. Some 100 people contributed $332,000 in the lead-up to the May election. But this means she has to be extra vigilant to avoid conflicts of interest under local government law.
“Well, I think it set me up for very, very challenging processes. So far, it’s been okay but the processes I have to go through – my Sunday afternoons are now spent checking and double-checking lists,” she said.
“I think it stems from my own naivety. I had not done this before. Our thinking on this, was if we took a little bit from a lot of people, then it would be difficult for anyone to say ‘oh you’re influenced by one person’.”
“So, we purposefully went about it that way and, as we went along, some people did say ‘oh, that’s going to be interesting’. I was so focussed on the influence bit so I didn’t really take the time to stop and listen about the challenges that was going to set up.”
“Would we do it differently? The fact is that we really did everything we could to win. That was the first priority. And that’s what we achieved, so we’ve got to be happy with that. But would I do that again? No. I would definitely not do that again,” she said.
Cr Capp also said she had some more learning to do around speaking on live radio – in particular recognising when questions require a broader, and less literal, answer.
“I’m a lawyer by training so I’m very literal,” she said. “This is one of the surprises and maybe one the things I can do better – that is to be conscious when entering broad conversations, I’m tending to be literal.”
“I think I’m missing the point a bit with where people are trying to go. I’m focussed on one little bit. The question seems to be focussed on that, but is actually a broader issue,” she said.
Cr Capp has wasted no time getting out and about in the community. She has established “community conversations”, is talking about a formal “residents’ panel” and has driven the establishment of a “people’s panel” to guide the renewal of the Queen Victoria Market (QVM), as reported on page 6 of this edition.
It is on this issue that differences have emerged for the first time within the councillor group and her approach has also attracted outside criticism.
So has she over-reached on her desire to consult on the market? And does she accept that the QVM could make or break any attempt to seek re-election in 2020?
“I could only have over-reached if I’d already decided what I wanted the outcome to be,” she explained. “I do know that we want to redevelop and I also know that we’ve reached an impasse. I genuinely believe that if we can’t get the broad support of the people, and particularly the stakeholders involved, so that the voices in support of this are louder and more predominant and positive.”
“Some of the feedback I had from those generally in support of the redevelopment is that they have been giving feedback over the last four or five years but it sort of goes into a black hole and, when it’s presented back in terms of this is what we are going to do, they can’t see where their ideas were considered.”
“Of course everything’s going to be a compromise and, if you can say to people ‘we considered that idea but couldn’t make it work because we had to do this’, then people have an idea of why it’s happened and, even if they don’t agree with it, they can come along with it because they can see the logic of it and the rationality to it.”
“I think all of us agree that we lost the narrative and trust of the broader community who became concerned with things like heritage – even though we’ve always had heritage at the core. So how do we win the confidence back?”
“I think how it gets handled will be make or break. Because, from my campaign’s point of view, I’ve always said I’m a big supporter of the development but my main piece has been engagement. And that’s basically what I’m delivering.”
“It’s the opportunity for those key stakeholders to engage in a way where they feel that they are deliberating in the future of the market – not just on the sidelines throwing ideas into a bucket.”
In the meantime, she’s getting on the job – at “full pelt”.
“I have very high expectations. As I said through the campaign, this is a very serious role. It has a major impact on our city and beyond. And I just want to make the most of every single moment to make sure it is having that impact,” she said.