Public Inquiry into the merger: community presents united front

2016-02-03 08.34.35

The infamous tent

In years to come, locals will still be talking about the day the NSW Government made concerned residents spend three hours in a tent in a carpark if they wanted to express their views on its proposed merger of Kiama and Shoalhaven councils.

Prepared as an overflow venue for the expected large crowd at the Leagues Club, a last minute decision was made to shepherd everyone into the temporary structure. The poor ventilation, no easily accessible toilets, inadequate audiovisual screens and need for water to be handed out was rightly seen as an insult.

Inside the tent

Inside the tent

The Mayor Brian Petschler said as much, while making it clear the Delegate was not responsible for the arrangements. He let everyone know that Council had offered The Pavilion as a venue, and the offer was still open.

The lack of amenity added to the passion of the event, where eighty-five people had registered to speak.

Only 63 people reached the microphone, where they were given three minutes to speak rather than the five minutes many had prepared.

One of those too far down the speaking order was eighty seven year old Elaine Pratt. “My mum has lived in Kiama since the Fifties and wanted to speak against the merger,” says Geoff Pratt. “She waited patiently in a stinking hot tent, no cooling, no toilets, no water, lots of guards, for 3 hours. Then had to leave without getting the opportunity to speak. I felt very sorry for her.”

The evening session

The evening session

The Bugle attended all three sessions of the Inquiry, two in Kiama and one in Nowra. The other two sessions were held inside clubs, not outside, so lacked the undercurrent of the first meeting.

In all, over 120 people spoke, and all of them were against the merger. Two people at the morning meeting who were unable to speak before time ran out said they were for the merger, but they did not take the opportunity to be given priority to speak at the evening session.

Speakers approached the ten points under consideration by the Delegate, Greg Wright, in different ways.

Many addressed Kiama’s sense of community and common interest, the lack of common interest with Shoalhaven communities, the contribution that Council makes to the everyday life of the community, the value they placed on having access to their councillors, the initiatives in place to share decision-making and contribute to planning, and more.

Peter Moggs, a local government planning lawyer with an investment property in Vincentia, said “Shoalhaven Council is already too big and to make it bigger would be a disaster.”

John Jennings, who has worked as an engineer for Shoalhaven Council, explained that the distances that needed to be travelled to do work severely cut into the productivity of council staff. “You cannot ignore the diseconomies of scale that will come from the merged entity,” he said.

Chris Forbes decried the “diluted democracy” that would result from a merger.

Many raised concerns about the fate of Blue Haven Care under a merged structure, given Shoalhaven’s lack of expertise in that area.

In Nowra, the focus was largely on the proposal’s silence on the issue of Shoalhaven Water and the implications of the rate freeze that would accompany any merger. Their Council is proposing a 20% rate increase over the next two years. “Mergers do not fix the financial challenges,” said Shoalhaven General Manager Russ Pugg. He said the rate freeze would ensure the merged council was unfit for the future.

Long term councillor and former mayor Greg Watson said “The full cost of te transition has not been factored in.”

Taking a different approach, a former policewoman from England turned Kiama resident said that the CCTV operating procedures operating in Kiama would not translate to the new structure, if Kiama was no longer part of the Illawarra Command. Response times would be severely compromised.

Emeritis Mayor Sandra McCarthy said “Kiama Council has already achieved what the state government is trying to achieve with its reforms.”

Others, experts in their fields, warned against differences as diverse as tree policies and the approach to providing youth services. It seems that Kiama is home to many people who have had senior roles in the public service, town planning and urban design, and they all had impressive points to make.

Near the end of the last session, artist Becky Guggisberg suggested to the Delegate that he probably wants to move here, seeing he had heard so much what a special place Kiama is.

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