Inner West Council Mayor Rochelle Porteous won support for a motion to consult about re-establishing residents’ precinct committees.
Precinct committees are a feature of many councils across Sydney and were a long-standing feature of the former Leichhardt Council, of which Porteous was mayor for several years.
The motion, seconded by independent councillor John Stamolis and supported by the two other independent councillors, will receive discuss a more detailed report at its November 23 meeting. Labor and Liberal councillors voted against.
Porteous told Green Left precinct committees were “very successful” in Leichhardt, giving residents “a chance to meet locally and talk about local issues”. She said COVID-19 “has made people more aware of the importance of local communities” and has led to renewed interest in local committees.
The committees — which were closed down when Leichhardt Council was forcibly amalgamated into the Inner West Council — encouraged community participation and decision-making and provided a “direct connection” between councillors and residents.
Porteous has attempted to re-introduce precinct committees to the Inner West Council multiple times, holding precinct meetings in the Baludarri (Balmain) Ward before the COVID-19 pandemic made public gatherings difficult. They frequently drew more than 40 people.
Porteous said that in Leichhardt Council they worked as part of a “two-way conversation”. Councillor attendance at committee meetings was not compulsory, but many councillors attended to hear residents’ concerns. “They would discuss traffic issues, problems at parks and concerns about developments and then the committee chair would pass on a list of these issues to council staff,” she explained.
Precinct committees could help return local government to the “Open Council” system pioneered by Issy Wyner and Nick Origlass. These activists thought council was too closely aligned to developers and business owners, and Open Council aimed to give the community a say in all local matters. This gave residents the ability to voice their concerns about dodgy developments and to prevent community assets from being sold off.
Porteous said the forced amalgamation of Leichhardt, Marrickville and Ashfield councils in 2016 caused a “loss of direct connection” between the community and councillors. “The size of the Inner West Council does not facilitate the type of governance communities want or need.”
When asked how the precinct committee proposal would be affected by any potential de-amalgamation, Porteous said she didn’t think it would be an issue. “Precinct committees would be particularly valuable in the amalgamated council because people could become involved in their local committee. However, they would still be a great resource in a de-amalgamated council.”
One of the benefits of precinct committees in Leichhardt Council was the relationship built between residents and council staff, Porteous said. “Leichhardt Council was great at retaining staff; it built up genuine respectful relationships with community members.”
Precinct committees would only be established with community interest. However, Porteous was confident that their positive impact would encourage residents to set up committees in their own areas. “People will see the value precinct committees bring and there will be demand for more.”
She said that while COVID-19 lockdowns had led to a resurgence in online community spaces, precinct committees allow people who aren’t “tech-savvy” to participate.
Precinct committees can also form the basis of local activism. There was significant crossover between the Leichhardt Precinct Committee and the NoWestConnex campaign, Porteous said.
“Precinct committees could give residents a voice on key issues in the local area, such as saving Callan Park, stopping the Western Harbour Tunnel and ensuring there is adequate support and advocacy for refugees,” Porteous said. “Discussion and community engagement leads to better outcomes and working through that process is what councillors are elected to do.”
Pip Hinman, Socialist Alliance candidate for Damun (Stanmore) ward, told Green Left that “creating structures to enable residents to have a greater say in ensuring council makes better decisions is welcome”. She added that, along with the controversial amalgamation of councils, the Coalition government has also removed councils' planning abilities, which affects residents.
Labor councillor candidates did not reply to Green Left’s request for comment.