Melbourne went into a severe Stage 4 lockdown, two long months ago and councils across the Melbourne metropolitan area have had to deal with all the problems that the pandemic has created -the social and economic fall-out has been immense.
The key has been to respond as quickly as possible to the emergency as it unravelled to ensure the messages were getting out there to isolate, maintain physical distancing and hygiene measures, to deal with the psychological fall out brought on by the stress and loneliness, to counter the economic impact and help those most in need.
Local government has played an important part in trying to maintain a united front and navigate the uncharted waters that COVID onslaught has created. Neos Kosmos spoke to the mayors of Brimbank, Moreland and Stonnington City Councils.
The Mayor of Brimbank City Council, Cr Georgina Papafotiou:
Cr Georgina Papafotiou was elected to Brimbank council (she represents Taylors Ward) in 2016 and was elected mayor in November, last year. Her inaugural term as mayor has been a baptism of fire in a year like no other – a leap year into the unknown for everyone.
Cr Papafotiou has not altered her call for a joint task force to be set up of state and local government officials to deal with pandemic in Melbourne. She first made that call in July when the resurgence of COVID-19 in the city’s west led to the shutting down of 10 post codes some of which straddled her municipality.
That selective shutdown created a major headache for the affected municipalities. It cut through ward boundaries affecting council services and sowed confusion for everyone trying to access the services in the areas in lockdown or to get across those areas to services that were still open.
The Brimbank municipality is the most culturally diverse in Australia. Communication has been essential in trying to keep everyone abreast of the measures taken to counter the spread of COVID-19 cases and the municipality has suffered the highest number of COVID cases in Melbourne.
“I am still calling for a specific task force for (COVID-19) hotspot municipalities that need support. Many people have not gone for testing because they are afraid,” said Cr Papafotiou. “As mayor I have met with many state and federal MPs and officials to create a solid strategic partnership.”
“Every municipality is unique and much of it depends on COVID numbers. We have 166 languages spoken here, we are communicating the latest updates by speaking to the community leaders.”
In this emergency it is not only the council that has a role to play in fostering communications but each person can contribute, she said.
“It is important to communicate to connect on a regular basis with your loved ones and with people in your neighbourhood (who are alone). People are lonely, some have mental issues, family violence is up and there is a lot going on behind closed doors – a daily call helps,” she said.
“I have had to talk those who have lost their jobs and businesses, those who have lost loved ones and people who have tried to commit suicide,” she said. “We try to communicate updates by speaking to the community leaders.”
Over the past months she has worked to keep the municipal staff on board reallocating those whose usual roles have been cut by COVID-19 to other roles in serving the community.
“The council reallocated staff to visit homes and provide one-on-one links. We distribute up to 250 food hampers a week. We have hosted about 700 webinars to help businesses to recover.”
Over the past few months she has personally conducted 550 one-on-one citizenship ceremonies.
“Many could not access MediCare or job seeker support without citizenship,” she said.
She has established a Memorandum of Agreement with Victoria University for a project to help those who have lost their jobs in the pandemic. A Victorian government grant of $8m has also been set up to also help those without work.
The municipality is also making use of a $70 million grant to help people get back on their feet.
While she will stand for election this year, Cr Papafotiou is not certain she will stand for mayor after such a difficult year.
“It has been a very challenging year – more than anyone can understand. My message to everyone is keep strong, positive, healthy and strong,” said Council Papafotiou. “It is also a very good time to look back and recognise this past 12 months. There were a lot of achievements and a lot of challenges and a lot of lives affected.”
The Mayor of Moreland City Council, Cr Lambros Tapinos:
Cr Lambros Tapinos is serving in his third stint as Mayor of Moreland and all his experience has come to the fore for 2020.
A higher education professional, Cr Tapinos was elected to Moreland council in 2008 and was chosen to serve as mayor for the first time.
“I have always enjoyed representing people and love the local community. I had run in 2004 when I was 23 years old and lost. I then got onto advisory committees and multicultural committees. When I was successful in 2008, a lot of the other councilors were also new but I already had been on a lot of committees and understood local issues, so I went for mayor.”
“I learnt a lot from that time. 2009 was a time of uncertainty because of the Global Financial Crisis. But it helped that I had been president of community organisations and knew how to chair a meeting and understood governance and procedures.”
“When I first entered council, there was just one part-time staff member for Economic Development. So I set up an Economic Development team to oversee all sorts of projects in support of businesses, to attract investment and white-collar jobs to support the local economy.
“The department has really grown over the last 12 years and has really been working well during the COVID-19 restrictions.
“There was a lot of sharing of information and talk between council management and the councilors. The first conversations were how to close services such shutting down the libraries and pools. Now it is (about) how to moderate services to make them available online. And (to provide) where there are gaps in services such as helping the seniors with their shopping. We put in more staff to help the vulnerable with their shopping, provide meals on wheels or to provide information online.
“We had to be quick on what services we had to offer and to provide information on health, and what services are available as well as what was required to fight COVID-19, such as information on hygiene and masks and to set up testing sites.
“We provide key health information in the different languages and media such as through social media, printed newsletters.”
A lot of the community engagement that would occur through established organisations was hampered or shut down by COVID-19, so there was a major rethink on how to engage the community and deliver the health messages.
Thanks to COVID-19 there has been a big financial impact and the council has come up with hardship plan for individuals, a waiver on rates and business fees. Grants have been offered to the most affected including help for the small business in the shopping strips in the municipality, grants for artists and waivers for pensioners and health card holders.
“Each day is something new. Two weeks ago (6 September), the Premier (of Victoria, Daniel Andrews) said the future is more outdoor. So, we are looking at setting up pop-up libraries with seating on the grass. We have to re-purpose space for outdoor use for libraries and open-air classes.
“We are looking at how to adapt to abide by the regulations and still provide for the communities.”
Much of the council work has been completed online. Since the beginning of the pandemic, for example, he has completed over 200 Australian Citizenship ceremonies, one at a time through Zoom.
“Brunswick is a very active area and residents send me Zoom links to talk about their issues. So the engagement with the community is still there.
“The question remains how do we connect with people? There is a big responsibility to provide information hotlines to link people with the relevant organisations that can help them.
“Apart from COVID-19, domestic violence and psychological problems affect the community.”
He said if he was asked to carry on as mayor he would accept it.
“I have a lot of experience and connections. This is not going to end in October. I don’t what COVID will throw at us but there is need for continuity to keep things going. But first need to get elected and then for the councillors to choose the mayor.
The Mayor of Stonnington City Council, Cr Steve Stefanopoulos:
Cr Steve Stefanopoulos has been the Mayor of Stonnington Municipality for three continuous years, from 2017. He was first elected to the council in 2004 and re-elected in 2016.
Stonnington is part of IMAP (Inner Melbourne Action Plan) a collaborative partnership between the Cities of Melbourne, Port Phillip, Stonnington, Yarra and Maribyrnong that are working together to strengthen “liveability, attraction and prosperity to the region”. The group along with the mayors Hobson’s Bay, Moonee Ponds, Moreland and Darebin meet every month to discuss issues that affect them all, including cooperation on COVID tracing, congestion charges, homelessness.
“We try to work together to support each other. We are the largest employers in the state with the largest inner-city population and employment sectors in Australia,” said Cr Stefanopoulos. “There is a lot of business in Inner Melbourne and everyone wants to be there.
The precursor of what was to come with COVID-19 came with the bush fires which forced the council to close some of its public facilities because of the smoke. When COVID-19 arrived, the council closed its libraries, sports and community centres and had to re-deploy its staff – as other councils have done. It was also important to communicate clearly to all the communities the measures needed to combat the spread of the virus.
“I (personally) wrote cards to all senior and community groups to say that the council was there to support them. I wrote hundreds of cards to show that we are listening and are there to help and called on people to trust that we were doing all that we could.
“Getting the message out was not just about using the television and the media. You do it anyway you can.”
With the number of COVID-19 cases showing a consistent decline in Victoria, the challenge, said Cr Stefanopoulos is how to re-open safely. He said meetings are now taking place between businesses, the Victorian Commission for Gambling and Liquor Regulation and planning departments as to how people can re-open safely.
“The question is how do we support our businesses to work outdoors faster. Plans are being put in place for how we do things. For example, for the libraries it may not be possible to sit in an library with others. We are looking to have more wi-fi hotspots in public parks and we will boost wifi coverage near libraries so that people will be able to get out of the house more,” said Cr Stefanopoulos.
He noted that the COVID emergency had shown that in some cases productivity had gone up as a result of people working from home more. But, he added, many people missed being able to collaborate directly with colleagues and the social interactions that would take place at the workplace.
“Online fatigue will hit hard. It is not the same because you cannot easily bounce ideas when face to face” he said. But he added that the situation could bring about positive changes in the way we work.
“We have had online council meetings over the past month. Sometimes we have had consultation meeting with up to 40 people attending online and it went well.”
He said in future it would be possible to hold some meetings online.
“This is an opportunity to bring about positive change through technology,” he said.
“The issue will be when the children return to school. Will the parents be driving their children everywhere instead of using public transport. We were almost at full capacity before COVID-19 and the roads will not cope. Will the children walk or ride bicycles to school?”