BY ALEX YUJIN
Things are heating up as 2017 marches toward September, when the first Inner West Council elections will be held. The former Ashfield, Leichhardt and Marrickville Councils were abolished by Mike Baird in 2016 to the anger of many residents and Councillors.
The current Inner West Council was hastily thrown together and has been headed by an administrator, Richard Pearson. All were appointed by the Baird government without any consultation with local politicians or residents. This election will be the first opportunity for the residents to have their own say on who will make up the council.
Victor Macri, an independent Councillor, says the former Marrickville Council had one of the highest satisfaction ratings in the state and did not need to be amalgamated.
“It is imperative that we maintain this closeness to the community, so that we are able to respond to their needs,” he said.
“At this point without elected officials, the needs of the community are basically put on hold. There has been a shift in morale of council staff due to the increased pressure to merge management, communication systems and the lack of certainty surrounding employment”.
Conversely, former Marrickville Liberal Councillor Rosana Tyler described the old council as “dysfunctional’.
“The investigation into each council’s finances in particular has highlighted that the various reports presented to the public were not entirely frank as to each council’s true financial position,” she said.
She admitted that one of the most important aspects of local government was to remain “grass roots” and that “listening to the residents is critical.”
All other Councillors who spoke to City Hub however were concerned that a grassroots relationship with residents was being killed off by the new amalgamated council.
“I expect there will be less diversity of political representation, especially fewer true independents. I am concerned that NSW amalgamated councils will be dominated by the two major political parties,” said Monica Wangmann, the independent former Mayor of Ashfield.
Ms Wangmann said that residents in the north ward of Ashfield had always struggled for representation because no Councillors lived there. This was mainly because it is a low socio-economic area, filled with immigrants whose second language was english.
“Amalgamating three councils to cover more than 186,000 people is likely to exacerbate this imbalance of representation,” she said.
“Who will speak up for these disenfranchised and diverse groups? Will competing needs across such a big council area be fairly attended to? What public land, town halls, and parks will be sold by the “bean counters” to make the council look financially successful? Bigger is not necessarily better.”
Ms Wangmann said she had not seen any positive results yet.
Maire Sheehan, former independent Leichhardt Mayor, said the huge council area would make it very difficult for independent candidates to run campaigns.
She said the Labor party would profit from the new council arrangement and probably secure a big number of seats in the upcoming election, but that it would lock out independents.
“If you’re at the level of the Greens, you’ve got a big organisation behind you, with people, money, budgets and everything. When you’re an independent, you haven’t got that.”
Ms Sheehan believes the Baird government made the controversial move because managing less people is easier for them, and that it wouldn’t even increase finances to the council area.
“If they do save money, in the short term it will only be from sacking people,” she said.
Ms Sheehan also said that she believed Liberal and Labor candidates would be making deals to secure as many seats for themselves as possible, which of course was easier for them due to their whopping campaign budgets.
Morris Mansour, the independent former Mayor of Ashfield said local residents’ needs had been put last.
“The community would prefer easy access to their elected representatives who understand local issues, which disappeared over night once the government forced the council mergers,” he said.
Mr Mansour said originally the government had promised not to force the amalgamation, but later when it did left residents feeling betrayed and angry.
“They even ignored the former council’s own survey which showed that more residents preferred to stand alone as there is no case that “bigger is better”. Big councils are bureaucracies and residents are the losers,” he said.
Meanwhile Darcy Byrne, Labor member and former Mayor of Leichhardt, did a back flip on his previous insistence that he would oppose the amalgamation.
At the first Inner West Council meeting in 2016, which was met with such violent public anarchy that it had to be cancelled, Byrne declared to the crowd that “we will be able to come to the negotiating table when democracy is put on the table.”
However the Labor councillor merrily sent out his press release last week announcing the lineup of candidates who would run for election in September.