BY THE CITY HUB NEWS TEAM
Alex Eugene, Georgia Clark, Tommy Boutros, Dylan Crismale
Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s latest backflip has created havoc for a number of Sydney councils. The shock announcement this week that the government would scrap all amalgamation plans for Councils contesting merger plans in court ensures that Woollahra Council will not be forced to merge with Waverly and Randwick Councils.
Meanwhile, the announcement has left Inner West Greens and Independents enraged. In November 2015 Labor and Liberal Councilors on the former Leichhardt Council voted to submit a merger proposal rather than oppose amalgamation plans outright. That month the Labor led Councils of Marrickville and Ashfield also submitted merger plans to the State government.
Two months later when the state government announced plans to merge Leichhardt, Marrickville and Ashfield Councils, the three Labor led councils opted not to go to court. In May 2016 all three Councils were sacked including Labor Mayors Darcy Byrne (Leichhardt), Lucille McKenna (Ashfield) and Sam Iskandar (Marrickville).
The sacked Mayors and Councilors will now be forced to take to the polls in September to be re-elected, but fears are rife that mega powers Liberal and Labor will dominate due to the huge geographical areas that must now be covered by campaigners.
John Stamolis, an independent inner west candidate who was previously a Leichhardt councillor, hit out at the big two for causing the bungled merger.
“Instead of challenging the merger, our Liberal and Labor Councillors teamed up to force the merger upon us. The case for mergers never stacked up. That’s why communities across the inner west and NSW did not want to merge, and why I voted in favour of joining other NSW Councils to challenge State Government in the courts,” he said.
Mr Stamolis said that the inner west was now stuck with a “flawed and incoherent policy for our future.”
“Our Council is very diverse, one part of the Inner West Council is harbourside, another part is bayside both have very different needs and urban planning considerations. Our residents want their Council to enhance and protect their local environment, their local amenity and their shopping villages,” he said.
Mr Stamolis will also run as an independent in the upcoming election. He said major concerns were overdevelopment, traffic and pollution caused by the WestConnex motorworks.
Rochelle Porteous, the former Mayor of Leichhardt and Greens candidate running in the upcoming election, echoed the sentiment.
“Leichhardt Council would not have been forcibly amalgamated with Ashfield and Marrickville councils last year if the Labor and Liberal Councillors had not consistently voted together both against taking legal action and against giving the community the right to vote on the amalgamation.” said Rochelle Porteous, former Greens Mayor and candidate for Balmain Ward.
“This forced council amalgamation happened because it suits the plans of the major parties. Both parties support WestConnex and are pro-development, so it is in their interests to reduce local elected representation and silence local voices,” she said
Meanwhile, the former Mayor of Leichhardt, Morris Mansour said that in his opinion the Liberal Party had only scrapped mergers to serve their own interests.
“The Government has shown its contempt for our area. Not only is it privatising our buses but now it has abandoned forced council mergers- but only to save vulnerable Liberal seats. Shame on them for trampling over the residents of the Inner West.”
But Darcy Byrne the former Labor Mayor of Leichhardt made no mention of his role in realising the merger. In his own backflip, he released a statement on social media disavowing the government’s moves as betrayal and placed the blame squarely on Liberal shoulders.
“Mergers will be scrapped, but only in Liberal blue-ribbon areas. So for non-Liberal seats, your democracy has been abolished, your councillors were sacked, you were forcibly amalgamated ant the Liberals have been running rampant in your area with WestConnex, and all the other nasty things they’ve been doing, but if you’re in a wealthy blue-ribbon Liberal area, you get looked after. This is why we need an election, and we need a strong independent council, that will stand up the NSW Liberals, and will restore the voice of inner west residents,” he said.
Despite lamenting the merger as “undemocratic” in 2016, Mr Byrne resisted calls to take legal action against the state which would have saved Leichhardt Council in hindsight.
Where the Inner West came apart the Eastern Suburbs succeeded; Woollahra Council emerged victorious after sticking to its guns. It had sought a high court appeal against its proposed amalgamation with Randwick and Waverley Councils into an ‘Eastern Beaches’ super Council.
Councillor Dominic Wy Kanak (Greens) from Waverley Council expressed his concerns that plans for mergers are still not completely off the table.
He said: “The Liberal party are probably even now trying to preselect a bunch of Waverley Council candidates who if they get elected will ‘voluntarily’ surrender their councils by voting for an amalgamation. This won’t go away until we have state legislation that the Greens have drafted which prohibits any amalgamation without first having a vote of support from the affected residents, and Commonwealth legislation where Local Government is formally recognized in the Australian Constitution. “
Woollahra council spent around $1 million dollars fighting the state government in the courts while Waverley and Randwick councils spent hundreds of thousands preparing their systems for a merger.
Councillors from all three councils indicated they would be putting motions forward to seek compensation from the state government.
Cr. Wy Kanak said: “Every NSW council should be reimbursed for the money they’ve wasted. However, the Liberal Mayor of Waverley Sally Betts must also be held accountable for the hundreds of thousands of dollars she has wasted pushing failed amalgamation and amalgamation-related agendas like privatising the Bondi Pavilion.”
“The Community of Waverley have expressed an enormous amount of relief and gratitude that this nonsense is over for now. The great majority of residents I speak to have been against these forced mergers from day one. People are now asking how can we make the Liberal National government pay for the mess they’ve created. A slogan is going round our community, ‘Put the Liberals last’ on Local Government Election Day, 9 September.”
Randwick Councillor Murray Matson (Greens) moved the motion at Randwick to commence legal proceedings earlier this year following Ku-ring-gai Council’s success.
Cr. Matson said: “I did this because I interpreted that my due diligence obligation to our residents was now to explore a legal challenge because there was evidence to suggest that one might be successful after all.”