Community says NO to forced merger

V31A4639More than 1000 Kiama residents declared their strong opposition to the NSW Government’s proposed merger of Kiama and Shoalhaven councils at a public meeting.

It was a meeting which had just about everything, including a declaration of a political uprising, passionate speeches, a few heated exchanges and even an old fashioned protest song.

The huge crowd overflowed out of the Kiama Pavilion and onto the grass of the Kiama Showground to hear proceedings.

On the night, a lot of the frustration was directed towards Kiama MP Gareth Ward, who was publicly warned by many – including councillors he had endorsed – that his job as the local member was on the line should the merger proceed.

The evening commenced with an extraordinary meeting of Kiama Council.

Councillors formally resolved to oppose the proposed merger of Kiama and Shoalhaven Councils “based on the lack of community interest between the two areas, the loss of democracy which would result, the strong community opposition to such proposal and the strong financial position of the Kiama Municipal Council”.

The Council also supported a mayoral minute from Brian Petschler which declared “a serious lack of confidence” in the NSW Government’s decision.

Cr Petschler said the proposal from the Premier Mike Baird and Local Government Minister Paul Toole had been met with “shock and dismay”.

The Premier announced plans to merge the two councils prior to Christmas with a supporting document justifying the proposal published in early January.

The Government claims the merger has the potential to generate a net saving to the two council areas of $38 million over the next 20 years, with a newly merged council to be given an assistance funding package of $15 million.

The proposal states a merged council would result in improved strategic planning and economic development “to better respond to the changing needs of the community” and that a combined council would provide a “more effective voice for the area’s interests”.

However the document was slammed for its lack of substance, contradictions and mistakes.

Wearing a placard declaring Kiama had been ‘stabb-ed in the back’ by the NSW Government, Cr Dennis Seage declared that the Baird Liberal Government was “the enemy at the gate”.

He warned his friend Mr Ward that “Jesus might forgive, but voters won’t forget”.

Kiama Greens councillor Andrew Sloan said council amalgamations in other states had shown mergers did not save money as they promised, but were purely ideological.

Cr Neil Reilly warned the community that the fight to save Kiama would not be a points decision but a fight won by a knockout punch.

“We are more than a quarry with a view,” he said. “We are a community, a community and a council that others would do well to emulate.”

The formal council meeting was followed by a community meeting conducted by the newly formed committee of the group Keep Kiama Council Local.

The group’s chair, former councillor Rob McKinnon slammed the timing of the Government’s proposal as “sneaky”.

Among those from the Keep Kiama Council Local committee to address the meeting were former Kiama mayor Sandra McCarthy, Cliff Mason from Minnamurra Progress Association, music writer Bruce Elder, former Illawarra Mercury editor Nick Hartgerink, Ian Pullar from the Kiama-Jamberoo RSL and Werri Beach resident Andy Farrell who spoke about the Municipality’s healthy community and services sector.

Concerns were expressed for the future of Kiama Council’s prized asset, the Blue Haven aged care facility, should it be placed in the hands of Shoalhaven-based councillors.

There were also fears that Kiama would feel the brunt of council job losses, with the new council’s administration to be centred in Nowra.

There was also disbelief that the NSW Government would think that Kiama was bound to coastal communities more than 180kms to the south when most residents of the Municipality looked north for services.

At the end of the meeting a motion was passed calling on the NSW Government to abandon the proposed merger and allow the Kiama community to run its own affairs as it has done since 1859, with just one dissenting voice.

Kiama Mayor Brian Petschler said he had not seen a meeting like that in Kiama since he arrived here in 1986.

“This meeting was very important,” Cr Petschler said. “We needed to gauge how the community feels and it was clear that the vast majority of residents do not want the merger.

“To have so many people attend was astounding.”

Keep Kiama Council Local spokesman Nick Hartgerink said the committee would continue to make its message heard in the six weeks until submissions close, with more public meetings planned.

“People are determined to take the fight the the Premier … we want to keep the momentum going,” he said.

In the coming weeks, the Council will organise and support a number of public meetings throughout the Municipality to provide information on the proposal and gather community feedback.

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