by John Moyle
Tuesday night’s Inner West Council meeting struck a blow for transparency on Council procedures and has possibly saved two vital projects for the peninsula.
This was a result of a rescission motion put by Balmain Ward Greens councillor Rochelle Porteous the previous fortnight when Inner West mayor Darcy Byrne presented council with a binary solution to the funding of restoration work for the Dawn Fraser Baths and the creation of Balmain Square in Darling Street.
“No-one subscribed to the either or approach,” Cr John Stamolis, Independent, Balmain Ward said.
The Dawn Fraser Baths is the heritage listed baths on the harbour located near Elkington Park on the western side of Balmain Peninsula.
Built in 1882 the Baths are said to be the oldest in Australia and were scheduled for a $2.2 million refurbishment, with the budget presented around six months ago.
The second project is the creation of Balmain Square from the demolition of the front of the Telstra Exchange on Darling Street to form a new community space for local residents.
Going back a fortnight Mayor Byrne blindsided the meeting with the news that the Dawn Fraser Bath’s budget had blown out to around $5 million and that the Balmain Square project would need to be delayed.
“The whole debate comes to grief because councillors were given no information about the increase of anywhere up to three million and likewise we were never presented with options about how we might manage that blowout with the Dawn Fraser Pool, which is a vital community amenity,” Cr Stamolis said.
“We had no report or briefing on that and that was new information,” Cr Rochelle Porteous, Greens, Balmain Ward said.
“Really, if you are making those kind of financial decisions you need to know the reasons why.”
None of these projects are new to Council, especially Balmain Square which was first discussed in the late nineties.
“Back in 1999 the Leichhardt Council was having a master plan drawn up for Darling Street and supported the idea of having a community square in the space where the telephone exchange is and we got a lot of support, in particular from Tom Uren,” Fergus resident said.
“In 2010, I and the Balmain Association took the issue to Telstra directly and had a discussion with them.”
The oft maligned Telstra came to the party and agreed that they would allow the front third of their 1957 red brick exchange to be demolished and allow the square to be created.
“We were surprised on the night that new information was used to explain why the mayor and the Labor councillors were opposing the project that had been on the books at Leichhardt for a number of years,” Cr Tom Kiat, Greens, Ashfield Ward said.
“There will be no rent or cost to Council for this land, only for the demolition and the landscape works for the public square,” Cr Porteous said.
Telstra are keen for the project going ahead, with a spokesperson telling City Hub “We have been working with Council to progress separation works for the Balmain Exchange, and we have asked Council if they wish to proceed and have not yet received notice of their decision.”
“One of the unfortunate aspects of this is that Telstra cannot be expected to keep their offer on the table forever,” Cr Kiat said.
“The front of the building was going to be demolished by the end of March this year and obviously that has not happened,” Fergus Fricke said.
Many Inner West councillors are even more surprised by Mayor Byrne’s stance when both projects had the support of Leichhardt Council before amalgamation.
“I’ve been a councillor for the past 12 years on Leichhardt Council and mayor three times and I have been supportive of these projects from the early days when they had the unanimous support of Leichhardt Council,” Cr Porteous said.
“This is not a transparent process and it is not the way the past council did things and is not the way a brand new Inner West Council should be doing things,” Cr Stamolis said.
At the previous Council meeting Mayor Byrne got a majority of the votes on the issue until the rescission motion referred it to a discussion in the next meeting.
At last Tuesday’s meeting Mayor Byrne did not present anything in relation to the two issues.
In recent years Balmain’s Darling Street businesses have undergone a downturn from a variety of pressures, including metered parking, and many see the Balmain Square project as playing an important role of the revitalisation of the area.
“Most people in Balmain see it as an important heritage and public space and there is not a lot of public space on the Balmain Peninsula,” Cr Kiat said.
Cr Porteous said “Places that enable people to connect are really important to the community, particularly in an urban environment where we are living quite densely such as in Balmain.
“This is a vital project (Balmain Square) for Balmain and the mayor is against his own ward and local businesses,” Cr Stamolis said.
Mayor Byrne was approached for comment but did not respond.