Inner West residents were shocked to be told by the Inner West Council’s (IWC) general manager that they were effectively being shut out of the preparation of the demerger case to the New South Wales local government minister.
General manager Peter Gainsford told a well-attended online meeting, organised by Residents for Deamalgamation (RFD) on April 7, that he had commissioned Morrison Low to develop the business case for the demerger and that the public would get to see it after the council.
Residents spent the whole of question time asking Gainsford about the secrecy surrounding the demerger process, including: why it had not been put to tender; why councillors and residents had not been given an opportunity to comment on, or even see, the specifications; and why, given the 62.5% Yes to demerger vote at the council poll, residents were being effectively locked out of the process.
“How can councillors be closed out of matters involving their constituents?” asked one resident.
“Very interested to understand the procurement process for the Morrison and Low report and cost,” another resident said.
Another said: “We have been advised to employ bona fide experts to assess the demerger? Consultants tend to find in favour of whoever is paying them. This Council is against the demerger. How can we feel confident in the quality of their findings?”
Another said: “I don’t understand why the GM [general manager] says community consultation will happen in August? Hasn’t the community already spoken with the vote?”
Gainsford conceded IWC residents had shown a keen interest in the demerger. He said council has commissioned Morrison Low before, and dismissed concerns that the consultant’s report would be skewed. Its previous cost-benefit report, touted as neutral, argued against deamalgamation.
Greens councillor Justine Langford told the meeting: “There has been no consultation with councillors or the community on how this very important project should be approached. There has been no tendering of the project to consultants and no consideration by councillors and the community on the terms of reference for the project.”
Associate professor of social policy and governance Joseph Drew, who was invited to speak about whether deamalgamations can work, said successful demergers have happened in Australia and that experts in local government, not financial consultants, should be involved in crafting demerger proposals.
“Let’s be honest: you pay to get a story and you get the story you expect. It’s as simple as that,” Drew said. He said successful deamalgamations relied on careful planning, including a focus on services, jobs and rates.
Drew said the NSW forced amalgamations “started off badly, and it is getting worse”. “It started off costing an extra 10% per unit cost and it has just gotten more inefficient.”
He reported that some amalgamated councils are under administration, and others, such as Cootamundra-Gundagai “have had to put up their rates 55.5% to keep their heads above water”. He said the IWC's best chance is “a change in government” and that it is worth noting that “no one has gotten deamalamgation by going through the NSW Boundaries Commission process”.
RFD chair Pip Hinman criticised the timeline presented by the general manager, saying it precludes resident input and clashes with the federal election campaign. “We have a one-off opportunity to force the NSW government to act on a democratic process by which 62.5% of IWC residents said they wanted to deamalgamate," she said.
“We know the government is not keen to give us our councils back, and a tick-a-box approach is not going to work. The process has to improve to ensure that residents and councillors have an opportunity to specify the terms of the new councils, including which services are shared.”
Independent councillor John Stamolis said that, despite his and the Greens councillors' best efforts, the lack of transparency in the demerger process is “alarming”. “After four months there have been no regular updates, no opportunities for anyone to contribute or participate and in fact … very basic motions that would have contributed to the demerger process have been voted down.”
Several residents, including former councillor and Mayor Rochelle Porteous, called on the general manager to ensure residents and councillors are involved in preparing the demerger case.