Ratepayers were suffering from not having a united, collective voice for the community, which gave councillors a freer rein when it came to making important decisions.
That’s the opinion of former Bendigo Ratepayers Association of Council Scrutineers spokesman, Martin Ruffell, who was involved with the last known ratepayers association in Bendigo.
BRACS – formed in 2006 and eventually fizzled out in 2008 – was the last formal lobby group for ratepayers in the region.
“There’s always a need for councils to be scrutinised when it comes to local government issues,” he said.
Most other regional centres, like Ballarat, Wodonga and Geelong, have formal lobby groups.
“It’s often ratepayers that are impacted by bad decisions by council,” said Mr Ruffell, partner of former Bendigo councillor Lisa Ruffell.
Instead, Bendigo currently had a fractured group of prominent agitators who may, at times, lack credibility, he said.
While there wasn’t a widespread apathy in the community with regards to council decisions, most people historically preferred to lurk in the shadows without putting their name behind certain campaigns, according to Mr Ruffell.
“People would often come to me (as BRACS spokesman) when I was organising a rally against council and would often give me money or give me information to use against council but they would never put their name behind it,” he said.
“People were prepared to give information to others to fire the bullets but they didn’t want to fire the bullets themselves.”
His comments come at a time where a new City of Greater Bendigo council is trying to solicit feedback from the community on important, city-defining plans of the future.
Plan Greater Bendigo, a major plan detailing the city’s 30-year infrastructure priorities, had under 300 survey responses to council.
During the consultation phase for this particular plan, mayor Margaret O’Rourke said Bendigo “does quite well” in getting feedback from the community.
There are a number of legislative checks and balances in place to monitor councillors and council performance, including a mandated code of conduct, an internal council conduct officer and an external, state government-appointed Local Government Investigations and Compliance Inspectorate.
This month, results of a satisfaction survey, which questioned ratepayers on council performance, showed Bendigo had improved to a score 56, from a low of 52 the previous year, but was lower than the statewide average of 59.