Meet the Mayor – Southern Downs Regional Council’s Vic Pennisi

Vic Pennisi has been an elected member of local government since 2004, and was elected Mayor of the Southern Downs Regional Council in April this year.

He has a background in vehicle fleet maintenance, the horticulture sector, and retail business management.

The SDRC is located in Queensland’s Darling Downs region, and was created in 2008 following the merger of the Warwick and Stanthorpe Shires.

What does your typical mayoral working day look like?

I like to get to the office before 7.30am so that I have a few quiet moments to get through any emails I have received overnight. Once the Council team start arriving, my day includes meeting with key officers, other Councillors, State and Federal Government representatives, and community members. Often my role entails liaising between Council officers and community members and businesses and translating solid business or community ideas into workable solutions for Council to progress and consider.

I am always available to anyone in the community, whether they want to make Council aware of an issue, letting us know what they  have been working on, understand their concerns, listen to their dreams and aspirations, or just for a chat.

At the end of the day, my computer stays in the office. I work hard during the day and when I get home it’s time to recharge and enjoy spending time with my wife, Sharon.

What is the best aspect of your job?

Delivering for people is by far the best aspect of the job. I enjoy solving problems for people, and I believe in my DNA that problems are solutions in disguise.

A great example of this has been the Condamine River Road Crossings. There are a lot of stakeholders involved in the future of this area – landholders, businesses, tourists, and State environmental bodies. Each stakeholder has a different agenda for the area, particularly landholders.

For the people who live along Condamine River Road, it is so much more than a way to access their properties. By working hard and listening to all parties involved, we are collecting the sentiment of the people that will guide us to a better outcome and one that all stakeholders can embrace. It may not happen quickly, but when it does it will happen it will have been with the people and not without.

What is the worst aspect of your job?

One of the challenges of being Mayor is trying to meet the needs of my community while balancing a finite budget and finite resources.

We have a lot of factors to contend with; ageing infrastructure throughout the region that will eventually need to be repaired or replaced, an ageing population, the desire to deliver new infrastructure and services for residents on a stagnant rating base, the tough financial climate brought on by drought, fire, and then Covid-19, as well as completely unexpected issues that we become aware of through community consultation.

The worst aspect of this position is simply not having the necessary resources to deliver on expectations.

What is the most rewarding project you have worked on during your time in local government?

Measuring the sentiment of the people.

A lot of people recognise me as part of the Council team and are happy to stop and tell me their thoughts on various aspects of the region; both Council and non-Council, and hearing how community members feel about various projects, about where a need in the community has opened up, and being able to relay this to higher levels of government.

Recently SDRC staff gave evidence at the Royal Bushfire Commission about what our community experienced throughout Black Summer. This evidence was contributed by the community and Council staff so that all levels of government can be better prepared for next time.

Another aspect is watching our community especially our youth, enjoy the facilities we deliver for them.

Your council is among the many that bore the brunt of the Black Summer bushfires. What are the lessons, looking ahead, for disaster preparedness and mitigation at the local level?

Expect the unexpected, be nimble, be aware, and trust the community and they will deliver for you.

Council spent a lot of time meeting with community members at our Recovery Hub to get feedback about their experiences. We collated this information and submitted it to the Royal Bushfire Commission.

Based on that report, a Council staff member was invited to give further evidence to the Commission. We also need to trust our community because they will pitch in for all of us when the chips are down.

The coronavirus pandemic has created serious financial headaches for councils. What can be done longer-term to ensure local government funding is adequate to provide the services residents, businesses and communities expect.

A really cooperative approach from all levels of government will be required to get our community and businesses back on the road to prosperity after Covid-19.

As local government representatives, we have, and will continue to work hard to ensure that state and federal governments can read and understand our needs.

This open, honest, and fearless feedback that we provide to the other levels of government has led to some great funding investments.

Recently, our Council received $2.9 million from Works For Queensland, and over $1 million from the Federal Government. We continue to truck water to Stanthorpe every day, and all of this is possible because each level of government is sharing the load. We are exceptionally grateful for this funding, but this is just the tip of the iceberg of what is needed.

The Southern Downs and Granite Belt have survived long and severe drought, devastating bushfires, and now Covid-19, and we continue to farm exceptional produce, create award-winning wine, beef and grain just to name a few, and also offer some of the State’s most unique ecotourism experiences. We are worth the investment.

What is the best piece of advice you have received regarding local community service as an elected official?

“Keep your eyes and ears open and your mouth closed”.

Essentially, the role of a Councillor is to listen and learn from the community we serve. Looking at the issues that are troubling residents and listening to the solutions that Council staff can provide and marrying the two is a large part of my role.

It’s very hard to listen if you are busy trying to talk over the top of someone.

If someone standing for council were to ask you for advice, how would you respond?

It’s democracy, you have as much right as anyone else has, so don’t die wondering.

The aim of any Councillor should be to serve the community using whatever specialist skills they have.

Whether you are someone with excellent relationship-building and mediation skills or someone who has an incredible eye for detail and problem-solving, I really encourage you to throw your hat in the ring.

Communities are unique and diverse and need a broad range of Councillors to represent all their differing, and sometimes competing, interests. The key to being a great representative is understanding “Servant Leadership”.

What is your favourite place, and why?

This region is so diverse that you can go from experiencing the Sunflower Trail to the north in the Condamine Catchment of the region to award-winning produce and wine from the Granite Belt, and unbridled beauty of our National Parks to the South in the Border Rivers Catchment.

Our region has several endangered flora species that can only be seen on the Southern Downs and Granite Belt. We have a wealth of local artisans that create fabulous handmade items, a range of really engaging annual events, such as the Leyburn Sprints and car clubs, the Warwick Rodeo, Jumpers and Jazz in July, the Apple and Grape Festival, Snowflakes in Stanthorpe, and so many more.

And best of all, we are only a couple of hours away from the Sunshine Coast, Brisbane, and the Gold Coast.

I really can’t put into words all the thrilling entertainment that the Southern Downs and Granite Belt has to offer. People really need to come and experience it for themselves.

For me personally, I have lived a lifetime in God’s country, but my favourite place is still next to my wife of 41 years.

How would you reflect on the difference that you’ve made in your community and local government in general?

On reflection, my aim is not to be remembered by what is carved in stone monuments but rather what is etched in the hearts of our staff, our Councillors, and the people that make our community.

Over the past 16 years, and over the next four, I have been working to leave a legacy of open and honest communication between Council and community. I campaigned on a platform of trust and transparency, and I continue to work hard to ensure that this platform of trustworthiness becomes a staple description of Council.

If I can leave this community in better shape – with more trust, better policies, and a well-supported community – then I will have achieved what I set out to accomplish.