Want to be mayor? Be a facilitator
For someone who is one of the most enduring leaders in Queensland local government, Scenic Rim Mayor John Brent has a blunt and simple response to questions about the role of a council and its mayor. 'We are just a service provider and I happen to be the boss of that service provider,' he said.
'Councils should be all about facilitating outcomes.'
It has been 20 years since Cr Brent was sworn in as mayor of the then Boonah Shire on 12 April, 1994. Along with Torres Shire Mayor Pedro Stephen, he has reached that rare milestone of two decades as his local community's chief political representative.
He has been in local government for a lot longer, having been first elected as a Boonah Shire councillor in 1976.
But despite having experienced most of the highs and lows of public life over that time, he is anxious not to overcomplicate the role.
'I enjoy it, I love elected life,' he said in an interview in his Beaudesert office. 'And I'm thankful for the support my community has given me over a number of years.'
'I will never meet the expectations of all but you've got to steer a middle course and I regularly say the community drives me. My personal view counts for not a lot at the end of the day.'
Cr Brent remembers his first years in council were marked by the lack of agendas distributed before council officially met. 'You just arrived and were presented with the agenda for the day,' he said. 'I think we got to the 1990s before we had an agenda to consider.'
He said community expectations were far higher now that they were 20 years ago. 'The roads, rates and rubbish aspects have always been a major portion of the budget but the focus is moving away from that into so many other areas. I suppose nothing is more telling than attending the LGAQ conference and looking at the motions before conference, how that has changed dramatically. Who would have thought we would be talking about the impact of sea level rise?'
He insists that as the reliance of councils on other levels of government grows, they receive lesser funds from the Commonwealth and the State. 'We need to remember that the feds have 99 taxes, the state has 27 or 29 and we have but one,' he said.
'As mayor your life is very much more about advocacy than ever before. It will continue to be that way until we are given an appropriate, ongoing level of funding from another level of government. I wait in anticipation of seeing a change in that field.'
Of the changes he has noticed in his fellow councillors, he said that 20 years ago there were many more councillors who he described as 'self sufficient in their own lives' than there are now. 'We had a greater depth of experience around the table and unfortunately many are not putting their names forward for elected life as a result of financial constraints,' he said.
'That is not code for more pay for elected members at all. I remember when I first started on council my pay was $37.50 per month.'
The changes he has noticed in the Scenic Rim community are even more stark for him.
'My community has moved from one that was active in rural industry to one where people are moving here for the lifestyle or assisting their rural income with an urban job - so that has been a major change,' he said.
The pain of forced council amalgamation in 2008 still rankles with him.
'There is no doubt that amalgamation was like leaving the family home and, given that my family has been rooted in my local area since the 1860s, that was a major personal change for me.'
'Upon reflection it has enabled the community to benefit by the size of the organisation but the manner in which the amalgamation occurred I will never accept as an appropriate mechanism.'
As for his achievements, he lists the development of the Bromelton industrial area, better water security ('but at a significant cost') and improvements in road network.
Then there are the smaller projects like the development of Beaudesert as a principal activity centre along with villages such as Boonah that retain the charm of regional towns, as well as the local trail bike facility which has attracted 30,000 users in the first year.
And his advice to would-be community leaders?
'I would say to anyone starting on the journey of being mayor that unless you have been involved in community life, had community experience and involvement with business or industry, don't bother about nominating because those experiences and background give you an enormous kick start to the job,' he said.
'I think we do have from time to time elected members with a singular cause. That is not a road to success.'