The Inner West Council (IWC) is the first of the forcibly amalgamated councils in New South Wales to give its residents a direct say on a demerger.
The IWC is leading the way in showing that the community can, and should be, consulted. That the poll is happening is testament to residents’ involvement in the Save Our Council movement. They have not forgotten the forcible amalgamation and can see that, mostly, it is not working.
This movement is spreading with the Demerger NSW Alliance to assist councils that want a poll. It includes semi-rural and city-based councils from Guyra in the north, to Bombala in the south and Bayside in the south-east.
In the IWC, after months of foot dragging by Labor and council staff, councillors signed off on the “Yes” and “No” cases on October 12.
While the demerger poll is just the first step in a much longer process and discussion about good representation and accountability, Labor and Liberal councillors have been doing their best mount a scare campaign. Former Labor Mayor Darcy Byrne went as far as describing supporters of de-amalgamation as “the people who want council abolished”.
Council has signed off on a flyer to all residents that includes information about a potential rate rise in any future de-amalgamated body, due to rising costs. But, according to Brian Halstead from Demerger NSW Alliance, no one can confidently say such a rate rise has to happen.
In his comments to council, Halstead said there is no evidence that demerged councils will spend more on employees, or that rates will rise. He questioned the projection that employee costs in the three demerged councils would be $17 million more than the current council.
The former Leichhardt Council had a surplus of $6 million before the merger, yet is projected to have a deficit of $5 million if demerged.
Halstead also pointed out that the merged council had failed to deliver the surpluses promised in the merger, and is still in deficit.
Depending on the demerger vote, the incoming council will be tasked with drawing up a business case for the NSW Boundaries Commission.
That will take some planning, including further consultation with residents.
The motion to have a ballot on de-amalgamation was won in May, but it has taken until October for the “Yes” and “No” cases to be put to council for a vote.
The short debate around Mayor Rochelle Porteous’ motion to accept the “Yes” and “No” cases shows the considerable power held by the unelected general manager (GM) in the preparation of the flyer.
The GM, echoed by Byrne, had stressed that the process under his guidance with an “external copywriter” and “fact checker” would be sufficient to ensure fairness. However, the flyer justified the merged councils’ performance, claiming efficiencies.
Porteous revealed in the discussion that councillors had only been shown the redrafted flyer a day before the meeting. Further, she said, the copy writer had not been given a word length, and the only document they had been given to work from was the Morrison Low de-amalgamation assessment report — the authors of which conceded that it was limited by: a lack of proscribed methodology; a lack of available information; and therefore assumptions had to be made.
Independent councillor John Stamolis’ amendment to strike out the projected rate rise table was lost, with only Victor Macri voting in support.
No Labor councillor spoke.
Greens councillor Tom Kiat said that, while it is very difficult to predict or estimate costs, “we adopted a process” and “we have to stick with it”. Porteous said that even though she agreed with Stamolis’ amendment, she could not support it. “We have to work with the material we’ve got … it could be improved but we’ve run out of time.”
As a result, residents will now be letterboxed with questionable information on IWC letterhead.
[Pip Hinman is standing in the Inner West Council’s Damun ward for Socialist Alliance.]