Montefiore: Town Hall is a Circus

If you’re looking to define life in the bureaucratic heart of the City of Adelaide, look for clues among the caravan, trailer truck and Big Top visitors to its park lands.

Many of the circuses that roll in to Adelaide seeking access to the park lands’ pastures have a sneaking suspicion that Town Hall shares many of their features. Sir Monty is tempted to agree.

There’s another circus coming to town this month, capping off a run of them over the past year. In 2015 one prompted a kerfuffle because some councillors, who had previously never given circuses a moment’s thought, argued that they were cruel anachronisms and should be banned from trading on the grassy vistas of the city’s edge. As a result, a staff member wrote a review, and inadvertently threw important new light on Town Hall politics and its multiple Adelaide personalities.

“Circus performances have traditionally included trained animals, clowns, acrobats, trapeze acts, musicians, hoopers, tightrope walkers, jugglers, unicyclists and other object manipulation and stunt-oriented artists,” his paper revealed.

How many Adelaide Review readers are familiar with at least one ‘manipulation and stunt-oriented artist’ in their circle of colleagues? Sir Monty suspects they could also name more than one ‘animal, clown or acrobat’ among their acquaintances. (Just recall the last Christmas party.)

Within Town Hall there’s probably an extensive list of persons the managers consider to be ‘tightrope walkers’, those given to show an infuriating propensity to vote inconsistently on certain matters, or support loopy policy decisions determined by councillors, especially if they were matters of strategic life and death in management’s tactical trenches.

The Town Hall report also segmented circus types into ‘classic’; ‘small-scale contemporary (human performers only)’; and ‘larger scale contemporary (dramatic mix of circus arts and street entertainment)’. The latter category probably more appropriately describes South Australian state politics, given its propensity for dramatics, stunts and one-upmanship. Some of those actors park themselves in parliament for years, but at least circuses only park in the grassy fields for brief seasons.

Two other descriptors also should have become relevant in Town Hall’s report – trapeze acts and jugglers – not in the circus context but in the context of city parking fines and how cockups in levying them are to be ‘managed’. When furious drivers rock up at Town Hall complaining about unfair ticketing, the unfortunate staff member facing the confrontation needs high-level juggling skills to explain the arcane rules and annoying fees (set by parliament).

monterfiore-town-hall-circus-adelaide-reviewAdelaide City Council frequently earns public ire for the parking fines it levies

Have there been many Town Hall cock-ups? Short answer – yes. Given that there are 17,000 city spaces, of which 20 percent are paid parking and the remainder time-limited, the odds are good. The latest-available data are a little dated (2013– 14 – Town Hall is coy about publicly updating the details), but human behaviour – with all its foibles – doesn’t change much.

So it’s likely that the current data are probably similar. It turns out that 9088 fines over city street parking were junked, stripping Town Hall of $765,646 of potential fines in that period. Top of the list was ‘Cannot determine owner’ (2055). Who knew that a rego plate isn’t worth its aluminium value if it’s been switched, or that many city parkers simply don’t bother to play the car rego game? Second – ‘Valid ticket produced’ (1577) – so how could a fine have been levied? Who mucked up? Third – ‘Other reasons’ (735). (That’s a ‘juggler’ determination if ever there were one!) Subsequent excuses? ‘Too old’ (723); ‘Valid permit’ (663); ‘Legal defect’ (613); ‘Ticket machine/parking meter faulty’ (542); ‘Compassionate’ (496); ‘Officer error’ (309); ‘Possible officer error’ (149); ‘Exempt rego’ (227); ‘Suspect undercover police/NCA/Customs’ (195). There followed a number of other reasons that would have fallen to the acrobat type staff member judgements, whose skills would illustrate a particular Town Hall dexterity. This would be especially so in relation to ‘Had permission’ (161) – by whom? ‘Traffic department problem’ (152) – meaning? ‘Special no action’ (96) – yes, but why? And, the aforementioned ‘Other reasons’ – (735). Typically for a bureaucracy, no reason was given. There’s a circus category for you – ‘Other’.

When your boss queries why you spent last month’s office petty cash budget within the first three days on a bottle department ‘special dozen’ Merlot or Savvy Blanc, try ‘Had permission’, ‘Other’ or ‘Special, no action.’ It might work. Of course, circus business hasn’t really changed much, but the business of parking in the city is facing revolutionary times.

Last year, Town Hall trialled the use of in-ground sensors to automate the policing of parking space use. Its purpose was claimed to be ‘data collection’. In a flourish of (Monty Python) circus-like prose, managers described the task like this: “[Town Hall] is investigating measures of [sic] improving customer service for on-street parking. Technology innovations will help deliver improved services, derive efficiencies and drive innovation. Data gathering and behavioural research needs to occur to inform future decision-making.”

In retrospect, it sounds suspiciously similar to the assurances 15 million Australians received last month, days before the Census collection went into meltdown on one tumultuous evening, leaving millions unclear whether fines might follow failure to file. Digital policing of parking carries similar risk. Changing to digital might end up a bit of a high-wire act.

It’s clear, at Adelaide’s Town Hall, a type of circus reigns. So it’s entirely appropriate to see Big Top style flags waving in the breeze above King William Street’s front entrance. The only thing missing is the band.

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