Independent Councillor John Stamolis in front of Balmain Library Photo credit: Joan Henson

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BY JOAN HENSON

A historic walkout of Inner West councillors has deferred a vote on whether a plebiscite should undo the council’s amalgamation.

On Tuesday 26 March, Mayor Darcy Byrne used the first council agenda item to request a retraction and apology from two colleagues for alleged Facebook comments made last July.

At the time of print the details of the comments were unclear. The mayor’s explanation seemed to suggest that one comment was posted to Independent Councillor Pauline Lockie’s Facebook page by someone else, and the other was posted by Greens Councillor Colin Hesse. Comments were alleged to suggest that Byrne and other councillors who voted for a development proposal were corrupt.

The request to vote on meeting conduct had been tacked onto a routine item about a local arts precinct without notice. At 5:15pm that evening Councillors Lockie and Hesse received legal letters about the potentially defamatory statements that related to the adoption of a draft development control plan.

Unprecedented walkout

In a point of order, Greens Councillor Rochelle Porteous argued vociferously that social media comments could not be prosecuted as a matter of council misconduct. She then led colleagues from the left side of the chamber outside.

With only seven councillors left in the room, no vote could be made and the meeting was abandoned.

Leaving the meeting, Independent Councillor John Stamolis said he had not witnessed a local council walkout in his 20 years of politics.

He said the Mayor’s handling of the agenda had been “clumsy and unproductive,” and that the item could have been deferred, or the defamation allegations withdrawn.

A week earlier Councillor Stamolis had tabled a motion asking colleagues to “consider” giving former Ashfield, Leichhardt and Marrickville council residents a public vote on whether to remain merged.

Councillor Porteous informed City Hub that she would table amendments to strengthen the councillor’s motion. Moreover, residents had registered to speak on the issue and voiced their support in chambers that evening.

Councillor Stamolis said that state election candidates attending a Balmain forum had set the tone for the plebiscite vote. All candidates in attendance, including Labor’s Elly Howse, were supportive of a plebiscite or de-amalgamation. The Liberal candidate was absent and was represented by a photograph on a chair.

Former Labor state opposition leaders, Michael Daley and his predecessor Luke Foley, supported plebiscites. Similarly, in June 2016, Bill Shorten flagged $20 million toward plebiscites in his bid to become prime minister.

Councillor Stamolis’ motion was punctuated by a plea for urgent financial planning. “We have spent tens of millions on the merger in the first three years… we are about to get some briefings on the budget that show it is in dire financial straits,” he said.

Councillor Lockie agreed that the amalgamated council has efficiency and financing problems.

“Anybody who interacts with council knows that there are many areas where our systems are in triplicate, because they’re all still based on what they used to be in Ashfield, Marrickville, or Leichhardt. We need a significant funding boost from the state government to help us do it.”

While not opposed to a community vote, the councillor said that she was not sure that demerging would help. “Most concerning for me is that we’ve lost a lot of staff as a result of the merger across all three councils, and that kind of institutional knowledge and background is really difficult to replace.”

Councillor Porteous said that she receives constant community complaints about the merger, which she says has not improved services.

“Most of the communications from council seek to paint a very rosy picture of this forcibly amalgamated council …  [the council] has been largely operating as a corporation which just wants to put out good news stories,  rather than being a level of government which needs to properly report with transparency, accuracy, accountability and without spin on the actions of council,” she said.

Rozelle polling, council disengaged

Late into the afternoon at Rozelle public school, Balmain Greens representative, Jamie Parker, and his supporters continued to hand out “how to vote” cards.

Parker said, “We support de-amalgamation. We think that if councils are amalgamated the ratepayers should decide.”

Cynthia, who is Secretary of Friends of Callan Park, also feels the council is disengaged from the community. “It’s much harder for us as local residents to influence decisions because you’re talking to some councillors who have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about.”

When the group approached council about hanging a banner across Darling Street to congratulate the group on its twentieth anniversary as a community institution, the response was disappointing.

“The mayor, who happens to be a Balmain representative, voted against the banner, supporting six people who don’t even live in the area, and aren’t familiar with Friends of Callan Park,” she said.

Mayor Darcy Byrne could not be contacted for comment on the plebiscite vote before going to print.