Time for community to get organised to demerge council

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The Central Coast community needs to get organised and campaign for Central Coast Council to be de-amalgamated according to Greens Spokesperson for Local Government and Member of the Legislative Council, Mr David Shoebridge.

By Jackie Pearson

Speaking at a public meeting at the Narara Community Centre on Thursday, May 28, Mr Shoebridge said: “What you have seen on the Central Coast is just kind of the worst elements of a disastrous policy that ran across the state.”

Mr Shoebridge said the NSW Government’s Fit For the Future process, which resulted in the creation of mega-councils across the state, “was actually designed to take the grass roots out of government…and the government didn’t care if you ended up paying the costs.

“I would suggest there are very valid arguments to say the administration was not giving the full and bona fide information to your local councillors,” Mr Shoebridge said.

“It was very hard for your councillors to get at the truth.”

He said senior managers within local governments across NSW were treating elected councillors “like a bunch of noddies…with contempt”.

“We know certain funds that should have been protected were raided to cross-subsidise some of the expenses of amalgamation.”

According to Mr Shoebridge, the Administrators appointed to Central Coast Council by the NSW Government have entirely air brushed over the government’s role in the amalgamation failure without even mentioning it had never provided any oversight or clear guidance for how the amalgamation process was to take place.

“And then blamed the councillors who were kept in the dark through the whole process.”

Mr Shoebridge said the administrator’s criticisms of the elected councillors were an unfair political attack.

He was scathing of the “solutions” now being adopted to address the Central Coast Council’s debt and deficit – “to massively jack up your rates and flog off your assets.

“And then when the community says hang on don’t flog off our land, they have the temerity to have an argument over definitions,” Mr Shoebridge said of the current public discussions over proposed sales of operational and community assets.

Mr Shoebridge said putting off the Central Coast Council election for another 12 months meant the NSW Government was “not allowing you to actually have a say about what your future is because some of the most important decisions about your council are going to be made within the next 12 months”.

He described the recent remarks by out-going Interim Administrator, Mr Dick Persson, who called for the Minister of Local Government to find a way not to allow any of the 15 incumbent councillors to ever run for office again, as “some sort of weird banning order”.

The NSW Government’s decision to limit the terms of reference for the McCulloch inquiry into the Central Coast Council to no earlier than 2017 was also criticised by Mr Shoebridge.

“The latest thing I saw in the terms of reference for the McCulloch Enquiry, that you could only look at issues from 2017 onwards. was the final insult,” he said.

Five years of failure

Mr Shoebridge, who has been a NSW Upper House Green MLC for 10 years, told the community meeting that his “pet subject” was local democracy and standing up for your local council and your right for local democracy.

“How did we get here?” he asked.

“You are one part of a state-wide mess that is the result of a government that has treated local councils with contempt since it has been in government.”

He said the community meeting was being held five years and two days after the first meeting of the newly-created Central Coast Council.

“It has not gone well,” he added.

According to Mr Shoebridge, at the time the NSW Government was threatening about 50 councils with forced amalgamation, they were arguing that it would save money, create more efficient local government and get more returns for ratepayers.

“That argument didn’t really ring true for me as a believer in grass roots government,” he said.

“State governments don’t like giving power to local councils that are responsible to their residents, particularly on planning issues, the state government has gone out of its way to make sure the local council cannot explain to residents and respond to their concerns.”

He said the real reason behind the NSW Government’s merger program was to reduce interaction between residents and local government.

Pretty much every expert in the finances of local government said the amalgamations would not save money or result in greater efficiencies and that had been proven by the failure of amalgamations in the UK, New Zealand, Queensland and Victoria where “inefficiencies grew, rates went up, it became more expensive to run councils”.

“I was part of a state-wide campaign to oppose those [NSW] council amalgamations saying to any council that would listen, don’t do this, take it to court and resist it,” he said.

Of the 50-odd councils slated for amalgamation in 2015, 15 went to court.

“Every council that went to court survived.

“Every council that didn’t go to court got amalgamated.

“Of the seven amalgamated super councils in Sydney five of them are in chronic deficit. Poor old Cumberland Council is in such a deficit I don’t see them coming out,” Mr Shoebridge said.

However, of the councils that resisted and survived, 13 are in surplus.

“It gives you some indication of the kind of lies that were being spun at the time of amalgamation.”

Mr Shoebridge said the main reason why the amalgamation process has been such a failure is that the NSW Government failed to provide “any state-wide policies or guidelines to have transparency while these amalgamations were going on… [there was] never any assistance from the Office of Local Government…every council was left to their own about how they did it.

“No council has done it well.”

Community must act now

Mr Shoebridge made recommendations for how the Central Coast community could unite to restore local democracy.

“I think it is time there was more truthful narrative about what has actually happened here and I think you should fight tooth and nail to restore democracy,” he said.

The first step was for as many residents as possible to make submissions on the proposed sales of public land which close at 5pm today Friday, 28 May!

The next step is for as many people as possible to make submissions to the McCulloch inquiry which must be in before 21 June.

“My view is that the community is always best served by its councillors or its residents groups or its residents making the argument whenever they can and telling the truth whenever they can. That is what I would be urging people to do. Make the arguments and tell the truth…and you hope that regardless of whatever the political machinations are the person heading the inquiry will listen.”

Activism to defeat the September referendum to reduce the number of councillors from 15 to nine and the number of wards from five to three will also be critical for the restoration of our local democracy.

“Even on the government’s own narrative the problem was that the councillors weren’t observing and interrogating, finding out what was happening in the finances. Even if you accept their narrative how is that going to get any better by reducing the number of councillors from 15 to nine?”

Mr Shoebridge said if the referendum was successful “each councillor is going to have about the same connection with their community as a state MP.

“It is going to be fundamentally changed if you are going to have just nine councillors over the entire area of the Central Coast.”

He said several communities whose councils had been merged had pulled together a petition under the Local Government Act to get the ball rolling for demergers. It requires 10 per cent of residents from an affected area to sign a paper petition calling upon the Boundaries Commission to demerge the Council.

There may also be the opportunity to contribute to an Upper House parliamentary inquiry into the whole NSW Government council merger process later this year.

“There is a very good prospect of an inquiry at the end of the year looking at all the mess that five years of amalgamation has become,” he said.

Then, “you have got 12 months to get organised and get a bunch of people in who will actually stand up to the government.”

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