Just before Easter, the NSW Minister for Local Government wrote to all mayors and councillors of LGAs mooted for merger, asking for ‘expressions of interest from councillors who wish to be considered for a role in shaping the new council’.
The premature move was explain-ed as being necessary ‘to ensure effective local representation is in place to meet the unique needs of any new local government area’, despite the fact that ‘no decision has been taken on any merger proposal’.
It came at a time when Council revealed its draft budget, to be considered at this month’s meeting, reaches all of the Fit for the Future benchmarks set by the Government to be met by 2019/20.
“I was affronted at the letter and found its content to be arrogant, assuming and alarming,” says Councillor Dennis Seage (right). “This dictatorial government just keeps getting worse. I will certainly NOT be taking the ‘offer’.’
Councillor Andrew Sloan agrees, “This whole forced amalgamation process has been a disgrace, and Minister Toole should be very, very embarrassed about just how low he is willing to stoop to entice compliant councillors to abandon the people who voted for them and start working for the State instead.
“This is a disgusting ‘divide and conquer’ approach from the Government, and I never considered for a moment applying for a job that would see the demise of Kiama Council.”
Councillor Neil Reilly is just as adamant, “I will not be responding to the State Government’s offer to take up a role in an undemocratically merged council. In 2012 the community elected nine councillors to serve their needs until September 2016, and they are the ones, the only ones, who can legitimately elect their local representatives.
“It is the clear plan of the NSW State Government to force-merge many councils, but their clear plan has been very poorly executed. There have been rule changes, back flips, financial anomalies and counterfactual arguments. They have made mistakes, not the least of which is to take on the people of Kiama and district.
“The Premier will not visit to put his case, nor will the minister…cowardice on top of incompetence.
“On May 7th the Electoral Commission is running an election here to determine whether we should be amalgamated. I urge you to vote NO. Remember, to have your voice heard, you must vote.”
Councillor Mark Honey says he will not be responding to the letter, “To accept the minister’s invitation to be a government appointed representative on an amalgamated entity would legitimise an undemocratic process that has been forced upon the NSW electorate, breaking the Government’s promise of NO FORCED AMALGAMATIONS.”
Gavin McClure agrees, “When elected four and a half years ago I was so proud to be able to represent not just the people that voted for me, but the broader Kiama LGA community. I was never told then that some three and a half years later I would be asked to turn my back on this fantastic community and side with the very people that have shown total disregard for the democratic process that we have known for over 150 years, and total disrespect to the people that make up this Community.
“It is very likely that the letter writers could very well be the ones looking for a job. No thank you Mr Toole!”
To express their interest, each councillor was asked to indicate they had the qualities the Government is looking for in the people it selects to help with the implementation of the merged councils.
“Willingness to make decisions that are in the best long term interest of the broader community wouldn’t be possible, since an amalgamation would diminish the best long term interest of the Kiama community which elected me.
“Desire to represent the views of the community would also become an exercise in frustration. I have the desire to represent our community, but just as the current anti-amalgamation view we represent doesn’t seem to be heard by the State, the Kiama community views will also not be heard as intently in the reduced representation of a different and much larger council.”
Then there are the three criteria applying to the acceptance of the merged council and promoting it to the community.
“To me, that would feel like I was a spokesperson for the misleading Stronger Councils, Stronger Communities advertising campaign that was used in newspaper advertising by the Government, to sway public opinion. I couldn’t wholeheartedly do this as I would be misleading people by implying that the new arrangements would meet their needs and provide for them better in the long term,” she says.
Councillor Mark Way believes the approach was inappropriate and not well thought out by the Minister.
“Whoever signed off on that proposal and presented it to the minister clearly lacked political knowledge and severely underestimated the impact on councillors and senior council staff.”
He remains confident that the merger will not proceed.
Mayor Brian Petschler and Councillor Warren Steel are travelling at the moment, but it is understood on good authority that they will not be responding to the request.
In a later, related development, letters were sent to general managers of affected councils asking them to apply for a job in the merged entity.
This has led the Local Government Professional Association to raise various questions about the process with the Premiers Department.
“I support their stand, and don’t intend to apply,” says Kiama General Manager Michael Forsyth.
Different response from the Shoalhaven
The Bugle asked the same question of Shoalhaven councillors and the mayor, Joanna Gash. Only two councillors, Clive Robertson and Andrew Guile, replied.
Both of them said that while they opposed the merger, they would be lodging their expression of interest in being involved with the next step.
“If the ridiculous were to occur, I am keen to see it go with sensible and reasonable efforts made to maximise representation for ratepayers,” said Robertson.
“Clearly, any merger decision is not ours to make and if it does transpire then our role is to make the best of the circumstances in which we would find ourselves,” said Guile. “An administrator is a second best alternative in my view so I’m encouraging all current councillors to put their names forward.”