Slings and Arrows: Pressure-Cooked Park Land Pork Barrels

A pre-election government spending surge west of the city quietly progresses, with City of Adelaide’s council changing its own rules to make sure the work is done by — you guessed it — March 2018.

The surge is on

In early August, the city council was under big pressure to tender for and have completed two big park land projects “by March 2018”, using generous handouts by Jay’s team of financial wizards. March 2018 is, of course, the month the pollies face the voters. The money comes from a $20m Open Space Fund, and the government wants the dollars and the tenders to be managed by council.

Project 1 is for West-Terrace-edge Park 25, site of new, $6.6m government-funded landscaping for a ‘garden’ (council’s view) or a park (government’s view). It’s currently woodlands adjacent to a new SACA $8m pavilion and oval spend, just completed. The council hype is that it’s to be park facilities for ‘the growing communities for the west end park of the city’, mentioning UniSA and Adelaide University facilities. But a park’s already there and few visit. The government hype is that it’s all about a ‘rest and healing space’ opposite the new Royal Adelaide Hospital (nRAH).

The site, opposite the Newmarket Hotel, is to be tagged the ‘Newmarket Urban Park’. The concept is a February 2017 after-thought. The original hospital plan for staff and patient recreation was an unshaded wetlands site due west of the nRAH. But it’s tiny, not easily accessible from the main part of the hospital and remains incomplete. The obvious other reason is that it only recently occurred to administrators that the old RAH had the Botanic Gardens for staff and patients, but the new one had nothing.

Lighting up

There’s another reason, too, but it’s been kept discreet — smokers. RAH files reveal concerns about it as far back as 2011. “Assuming people will go off-site they will cluster, probably under ‘significant trees and bus shelters’ adjacent to the footpath at the front entrance. Given such blight… it might be worth considering having a contingency plan beyond ‘signage and butt bins at the boundary,’ a February 9, 2011 RAH report stated. Anyway, when you’ve just opened a $2.4 billion hospital, what’s another $6.6 million across the road?

Court in the net

There’s also a whiff of pork barrel sizzle in the park lands south west of the square mile, with a $3.2 million government ‘donation’ to fix netball courts between Goodwood Road and Anzac Highway (Park 22), which council paperwork reveals the government demands must be completed, um… by… “March 2018”.

City councillors were only slightly more shocked than the 188,000 netballers, in 200 teams that play annually, at the news announcement earlier this year, because councillors — the policy custodians of the park lands and their sports areas — were the last to be told about the announcement. The netball bureaucracy couldn’t believe its good luck. But there was nothing in media statements mentioning the fact that the ‘resurfacing and thermoplastic coating to all 20 netball courts’ and new landscaping, seating and lighting works could muck up competition schedules for at least three months — or more — of the summer season.

Give the man authority!

Under the government’s urgency to meet its imposed March 2018 deadline, the order from the Premier’s People meant that the city council had to coordinate very fast work. The total spend amount became $9.5m, leaving its CEO, Mark Goldstone, in a quandary. Until early 2017, he had delegated authority to call for, finalise and award tenders on very short notice up to the value of $4m. But the urgent ‘Urban Park’ project forced councillors on June 27, 2017 to increase that limit to $6.6m.

Then along came Jay’s folks with news about the netball windfall, forcing another topping up. Council on August 8, 2017 thus allowed delegation “to finalise the tender process and execute the relevant construction projects as they relate to the enhancement of [Park 22] and [Park 25] up to a combined value of $9.5m.” The actual total for both projects is $11m, but the balance can be authorised already under earlier delegated powers.

Kicking the goals

This sort of political pressure, best described as a panic of politicians bearing gifts, is decidedly unhealthy in terms of proper local government process and governance. The city council in 2016 had already given its CEO — whoever that is now or in the future — significant new delegated spending allowances to $4m, a big jump on the former limit of $1m. But calling for, assessing and awarding big-money tenders takes time and should be a highly transparent process — including Prudential Reports for projects over $4.75m.

The pressure casts no reflection on council’s current CEO, Mark Goldstone, who is widely respected among local government chiefs. But pressure to adopt new delegation levels highlights fresh dilemmas about unreasonable (and potentially risky) state pressures on SA local government procedures, when a state government brings an urgent tray of pork spare ribs to the barbecue. It’s just another feature of behind-the-scenes pressures as a nervous state administration begins its sprint towards the goal posts, but expects the city council to kick the goals on its behalf.

Ash Whitefly is Executive Director of the Adelaide Whitefly Institute of Diplomatic Studies.

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