We need public servants like Carlo Catani*

Halfway along the Esplanade in St Kilda, overlooking the beach and the Bay there is a modest brick clock tower, the clock stopped years ago of course, and at the foot of this memorial is a bronze bust of Carlo Catani, a remarkable man who played a big role in the development of the St Kilda foreshore. The plaque says simply 'A great public servant of Victoria 1852-1918.'

Catani was born in Florence, Italy and trained as an engineer before emigrating to Melbourne in 1876 as a young man of 24. He joined the Department of Lands and Survey, became registered as a surveyor and two years later was transferred to the Public Works Department as a draughtsman preparing plans for harbours, jetties and coastal works. He was appointed a deputy engineer in 1886, married Catherine Hanley, daughter of a Port Fairy farmer and became a naturalized citizen in 1892.

He was promoted head of his PWD section in the same year and was responsible for the draining of the Koo-Wee-Rup swamp in West Gippsland. Finding the work of the contractors unsatisfactory, he devised a system of using the labour of unemployed married men who were offered small farms on the newly drained land.

Catani was next concerned with the widening and improvement of the River Yarra upstream from Princes Bridge. Through his urging, the scope of the flood mitigation programme was greatly enlarged and work began in August 1896; next winter he began to plant elms, oaks and poplars along the left bank and the newly formed Alexandra Avenue. His river works extended upstream as far as Cremorne railway bridge, and included the road bridge at Anderson Street.
The laying out and planting of the Alexandra Gardens was executed by the PWD under Catani's direction.

Catani's last major project was the reclamation of the foreshore of St Kilda. He was an original member of the St Kilda Foreshore Trust, set up in 1906, and after his retirement in 1917 he continued as govern-ment representative. He designed the landscaping of the gardens at the beach end of Fitzroy Street, later named the Catani Gardens, and was responsible for the foreshore works all the way to Point Ormond. Carlo Catani never returned to Italy, he died at St Kilda on 20 July 1918, and was buried in Brighton cemetery.

Sir Kingsley Norris recalled Catani as a 'remarkable little bald-headed, bearded man' and that's the way he looks in his bronze bust. One officer of his department remembered that he was always clad in Fox's serge and wore his spectacles on the end of his nose. A close associate wrote that 'he saw possibilities to which others were blind' and other contemporaries recorded his'unfailing courtesy and kindly nature'.

I walk past his monument every morning on my constitutional out onto the pier, and some sense of all that comes through in that bronze bust. His was a useful, practical life, he made a real difference and I wondered about the description of him. It was one he would have worn proudly I'm sure, but no one talks about 'public servants' any more since councils and government departments were effectively corporatized; they are usually called 'the officers' or by their corporate titles these days. There is something about the word servant that is perhaps a bit pejorative to Australian ears, but this is not just a change in title. Nowadays the officers almost certainly see themselves as working for an organisation rather than the public, and while we, the public might be the ultimate shareholders, their concerns are first and foremost to the body that will reward them with professional responsibilities, promotion and increased salaries. I see little in the actions of the officers of today of Catani's ethos of selfless service to the community for over 40 years.

As JK Galbraith pointed out in his book 'The New Industrial State', it's the CEO and senior executives who really make all the decisions in private corporations (and councils) these days rather than the Board of Directors (or the elected Council), and the shareholders (or the ratepayers) don't have much say. The council officers certainly don't see themselves as servants but as professional players, they view themselves as a ruling administrative class who know better than we do and who decide most things without reference to the councillors or the public.

Councils and government agencies have also grown enormously in size since Catani's day, I wonder how many people were in his Public Works Department, many fewer than today I'm sure. Take the Port Phillip local government area for example. There are between 85 and 90 thousand people within the Port Phillip area and the council has an annual income in excess of $144 millions and employs more than 500 full and part time staff, so it's no small corporation. The income needed to employ such a large number of well paid staff (the CEO for example gets a salary in excess of $300,000) largely comes from the rates paid by the citizens.

There are some aspects of the way Port Phillip council operates that need serious exploration in an election year as the current councillors resist any public criticism of the officers, defend their actions and seem to be too intimidated to challenge them. Yet experience in a number of cases has convinced me that it's often not the fault of the councillors when things go wrong or are pedantically slow, the officers are simply not giving them good advice or good service. In part this appears to be lack of experience, and one recalls the Ombudsman's comment in his report on the BBC Triangle that,

I do not consider the City of Port Phillip had the relevant experience and expertise to undertake such a significant project, especially when it was not subject to the same high level of checks and approvals associated with a state government development.

I agree with this assessment, and also think the council is too large, has too many extraneous activities and there are too many odd services accreted over the years and continued by the officers (like free golf lessons for beginners), and as a consequence of these factors there are the high staff numbers, and the rates are considered far too high to be sustainable.

There is no simple piecemeal solution; what is needed is an objective, external professional review (with citizen involvement) of the council's management and operations with a view:

• to making it more responsive to the community and

• to becoming more sustainable as part of a sustainable society preparing for a world that is going to change radically over the next 30 years.

Let me give you a recent small example where council officers have illustrated both their lack of experience and their indifference to exercising economy with ratepayer funds. As part of continuing discussion in community Forums organized by the council about what should be built on the Triangle site, the officers commissioned three consultant reports. Unfortunately there was no public discussion of whether they were really necessary and more importantly what the briefs for these studies should be.

At the first Forum there had been talk of parking on the Triangle site and there was general consensus that the parking should be underground so the cars could not be seen, so the first report commissioned was simply about the costs of parking 200, 300 and 500 cars underground. The report, which was prepared by Arups, a good firm, has finally been released three months after it's launch at one of the Forums, and in essence consists of drawings and explanations of the three options, padded out by a discussion of the construction options, and the level of soil contamination on the site, and an elaborate evaluation of the options. Suggestions had been made previously that a broader study of how and where parking might be accommodated off-site because underground parking would be too expensive were not adopted, and the consultants state that the scope of work did not include in-depth analysis of future demand for carparking in the area, or the provision of carparking outside the Triangle whether on council land or not.

So Arups did what they were asked to do, which basically came down to the estimated costs of the 200/300/500 car options, and these costs in many millions of dollars were quoted at the Forum meeting when Arups explained their report. But for some unknown reason these estimates of construction costs have been excised from the final version of their report released to the public three months later. The deleted cost estimates were the nub of this report, all the rest (tables of demand and revenue forecasting and sensitivity analyses of the projected income from the parking with and without some commercial space etc etc) is largely interesting padding. If I were Arups I would be a bit annoyed that I wasn't given a brief to do a more conclusive study!

I didn't write down the estimated total costs of 200/300/500 underground cars that Arups quoted at the Forum meeting as I assumed they would be in their report when it was finally released. The 50 page Arup report is labeled 'commercial-in-confidence' but in my opinion it contains nothing of such a sensitive commercial nature that justifies this exclusion, so it's hard to understand why the Council (or was it the officers?) has censored these estimates; too alarming for the punters? It makes one wonder what else has been left out in the public versions of these reports!

However my main point is that the whole Arup report seems a bit unnecessary as these unrevealed carpark estimates could have been established by a fifteen minute discussion with a experienced quantity surveyor. QS estimates based on experienced square rates with a bit of adjustment for items like lifts would have been well within plus or minus 5% of the estimates deleted from this report, and would I suggest, have been quite sufficient for the purpose of deciding whether underground parking was financially feasible or not, and much cheaper.

I said all this to one of the councillors I met in the supermarket, and she agreed in an embarrassed way, saying in mitigation that at least we now know that underground parking is too expensive! Any person experienced in develop-ment already knew this, but if there was any doubt about the experienced opinions that had been proffered, they could have been re-established and confirmed by a simple telephone call to a quantity surveyor. I don't know what Arups charged for their report but it illustrates that the officers weren't too concerned about incurring costs unnecessarily at this stage. All of these factors reveal inexperience, and in censoring this report the Council has once again demonstrated lack of faith in honest consultation with the community.

The second report was the Palais Theatre Requirements Study prepared by a consultant group led by Williams Ross Architects. Before reviewing this study the overwhelming factor before any other consideration of the Palais is how any restoration might be funded. The State Government has consistently refused to consider funding for any upgrade, and the previous Labor Government only provided the funds to renew the roofing as an election sweetener. The Palais Theatre is a metropolitan wide venue and it is not the responsibility of the ratepayers of the City of Port Phillip to pay for the high cost of restoring a building owned by the State Government and used by Melburnians generally. For these reasons any considerations of what might go on the Triangle site must stand alone without any connection to the future of the Palais, and therefore the restoration and operation of the Palais must be considered as a separate project from the Triangle probably with a different time scale.

Given the primacy of the funding problem it would therefore seem sensible to consider the lowest cost options before considering schemes like some of those proposed by the consultants for expansion of the theatre as far as Jacka Boulevard with, among other things, a 'destination' restaurant whatever that is. The earlier BBC scheme proposed to spend $20 M on the Palais to ensure code compliance and improve the backstage facilities and all this was achieved within the curtilage of the subdivided area in which the Palais stands, and I'd back my judgment that BBC only proposed to do what was absolutely necessary and at the lowest cost.

This report considers the options for different degrees of restoration, and their stages 1A and 1B is roughly comparable to the scope of the BBC proposal although the estimated cost has more than doubled to $ 38-42M over the last three years, and they appear to have extended sideways further than the Palais lease area into the Triangle site.

The very commissioning of a study like this shows lack of judgment in a situation where there are clearly grave doubts about the long term viability of the Palais in an economic and theatre sense, quite apart from the availability of the funds required to restore it. Suggestions had been made by some citizens, and supported as one option by the consultants, that it would be more to the point to call for expressions of interest from entrepreneurs who might restore the theatre in return for a long term lease at no cost to the community, that only people in the theatre business could assess all the risks and the viability of spending a lot of money on the Palais. It was considered more sensible that a practical theatre operator should decide on the scope of the refurbishment that was needed, and what could be afforded.

Restoration in return for a long term lease at no cost to the ratepayers or the State Government is the only financial option that would guarantee the actual restoration in the near future, and the continuing operation of the theatre when the current lease expires in 2015. The current operator has achieved 100 performances per annum and the increase needed to push the theatre into a financially possible future does not seem impossible.

Now, the Melbourne entrepreneurial theatre world is not large and considering the costs involved there may be no takers. The restoration of the Regent Theatre (in which the writer had a minor influence) was only made possible by joining it to the adjoining hotel development, and something like this might have to be found in this case, like the development of a private hotel at the rear of the theatre. This is a clear case where the market should be allowed to propose what's feasible or nothing will happen. The only way to find out if this option has any merit is to call for Expressions of Interest and find a good project manager to have open ended discussions with likely theatre operators to find out what sort of a deal might be possible before getting off on the sorts of detail set down in this consultant report. Again the officers didn't listen to such an eminently practical no-cost suggestion and have put the cart before the horse in commissioning this study. In my opinion the way in which this aspect has been handled illustrates poor judgment, inexperience and again, disregard for economy.

The third report (called a Visual Impact Analysis) was, in essence, about fixing the sightlines from the Esplanade. This came completely out of left field, there had been absolutely no dissatisfaction expressed with the sightlines proposed in the earlier Urban Design Framework (UDF) where the whole of the foreshore was to be visible as you walked or rode in a car or the tram around the Esplanade. This new complicated sightline proposal is very clever and ingenious with controls proposed that are clearly designed to allow for potential buildings on the site. To many people this seemed to be going backwards and it was only when the council's 'Vision Plan' was tabled (in the Working Draft version 6 Report) that we could see how the sightlines had been designed with a specific building in mind.

This report revealed that the officers probably had a future design in mind when they commissioned this sightline analysis. And it showed that to this extent the public consultation was a sham to enable a council concept plan to be put forward and adopted well before a real designer was selected, fixing a plan that would in effect determine the final design. My objections to this Vision Plan can be read in 'More triangulation… or is it strangulation, but wait, these considerations have been overtaken in the latest Consultation Draft Report where the Vision Plan has now been omitted. Good, but we know that it is probably being held somewhere in the background ready unto the day. The latest Report also has more PR stuff, pages and pages for the kiddies saying things in large type like JOIN IN HAVE FUN HANG OUT!

So three consultant reports were written at considerable cost to the ratepayer (how much in total?), reports in my opinion that were not really required, but which have advanced some hidden agenda of the officers not made known to the councillors or the public at the time. Councillors are simply not being well served by officer actions like this, but they seem to be too intimidated to challenge them: it makes a mockery, of electing citizens to set the guidelines and decide on policies if they are unable to act fearlessly as our represent-atives, and more to the point, that we employ officers who know it all, who don't listen and don't consider suggestions or follow directions.

I've argued before that what is needed on the Triangle is professional project management, and this latest episode confirms it in spades. My suggestion two years ago was that Council should set up a Steering Committee consisting of four councillors plus four citizens serviced by a part-time consultant project manager to keep the material up to the committee and to force the decision making process, but this was rejected at the time. Instead they embarked on a series of Forum consultations where agreement to the officer proposals usually ends up simply being assumed.

The Ombudsman thought that the council wasn't up to managing a project like the Triangle, and even ex-mayor, 'death elegy' Dick Gross has complained about the glacial pace of progress in the local paper. And Trevor White, a local resident and trouble shooting project manager at the University of Melbourne, was constrained to write recently lamenting the general lack of confidence in CoPP being able to project manage the Triangle.

All this is bad enough, but much more seriously, I suspect that this little story is the whole council in a microcosm, that this sort of loose, unthinking officer led organisation runs through many of the council's activities. The last lot of council minutes listed twenty managers being in attendance on the seven councillors at council meetings; no wonder they are a bit overwhelmed! Only a thorough management review with citizen involvement would introduce the transparency and honesty that will reduce staff numbers, reduce costs and reduce rates. We clearly need a latter day Catani to be 'a great public servant for St Kilda', someone we can really trust to clean out the stables.

Don Gazzard

June 2012

* Biographical details from Wikipedia and the Australian Dictionary of Biography