NSW Premier Mike Baird is handpicking the councillors for new super councils, believes the president of the state’s local government peak body.
NSW Minister for Local Government Paul Toole wrote to councillors and general managers last week asking them to complete an expression of interest (EOI) if they wanted to reapply for their jobs in an interim council and “help shape the future of any new council.”
President of Local Government NSW Keith Rhoades said the application process, which closes on April 15, was like the merger process, “shrouded in secrecy.”
“It’s totally undemocratic. Totally,” Mr Rhoades said. “Here we’re going to have a government selecting and handpicking who they want to form a council.
“The Minister and the Premier did not elect these councillors. These councillors were elected by their communities: democratically.”
Mr Toole’s has asked interested applicants to complete a 500-word statement about why they should be allowed to stay on.
The options for councils include one person acting as an administrator of a newly-merged council or some or all councillors continuing in the new council until the local government elections in March 2017. Council elections will be held for those councils not affected by mergers in September 2016.
Councils may also form committees to advise on mergers or represent community views.
But Dubbo Deputy Mayor Ben Shields, who is also the area’s Federal Branch President of the Liberal Party, criticised Mr Rhoades’ comments: “I think anything Liberals or Nationals Keith is going to put the boot into but he offers no solutions at all.”
Mr Shields said most Dubbo councillors had decided to submit an EOI by mid-April.
“It’s an administrative process. I don’t think it’s democratic but we’re better off having people who are inside the tent. We have always got to think of the community first.”
It is not known on what criteria the government will chose councillors, for example, whether political affiliation or ward they represent will be taken into account.
Mr Toole’s letter has provoked stinging criticisms from councils, some of whom accused him of already having made his mind up on forced mergers ahead of reports by delegates running public inquiries into mergers and the Boundaries Commission.
Lockhart Shire councillors, in the NSW Riverina, have vowed to rebuff the minister’s request and not apply for anything.
Lockhart Mayor Peter Yates told the Daily Advertiser that he had received phone calls from councillors who refused to complete the form because it would be accepting the government’s forced merger plans.
“It’s what the government wants us to do to add weight to their merger proposal – we’d just be falling into their hands if we filled it in,” Mr Yates said.
“What the government’s saying is the mergers are a foregone conclusion – it’s going to happen – so be a part of it and add solidarity to your community.
“Well, we believe we have a good case to beat the merger proposal and until we’re told otherwise in June, we’re fighting right through to the end.”
The new councillors and general managers could start work as early as May, when Mr Toole is likely to deliver his verdict on the Boundaries Commission’s report.
Mosman councillor Tom Sherlock said he would not be responding to Mr Toole’s “coercive EOI.”
He said that submitting an application was incompatible with the views of the majority of Mosman councillors that the process had been “false” and trust had been broken between the state government, councils and communities.
But he admitted he was concerned that Mosman would be sidelined in a super council if councillors did not apply for the roles.
“To be honest, the process is so corrupted that I have no trust or faith in the government or the Minister or the Premier that I feel, if we were there, what kind of real power and trust would we have that anything we did or said would have any impact on what would happen?
“The agenda is very much in the hands of the big end of town, those that will benefit from the lack of community involvement in developing Sydney or regional areas.”
Woollahra Mayor Toni Zeltzer said interested councillors would submit EOIs – despite rejecting the proposed merger with Randwick and Waverley Councils – in order to represent the community that elected them.
“We believe that our community voted us in as their representatives and that has not changed,” Ms Zeltzer said. “We are still their voice. We continue to voice their majority opposition to forced amalgamation, we continue to fight for the democracy we believe should still be the heart of local government.”
She said she did not agree with the way the government was pushing its “political agenda” or the EOI process but councillors took their public service role very seriously.
“We were not elected by a group of government officials in Macquarie Street on a 500-word CV and a tick-a-box compliance checklist – the process is not ideal.
“Our councillors all have local knowledge, genuine commitment to the community and a competitive range of skills to bring to the table if we are forced to merge.
“We should remain in the arena – that is where we can promote the values upheld by our community and where we can make sure that any change is for the better.”
Mr Rhoades said he was concerned that councillors who completed an EOI had not be given any assurance of anonymity.
He said it was up to individual councillors to make their decision.
“There’s some chatter out there at the moment,” Mr Rhoades said. “I’m sure those affected councillors will be meeting to discuss their position.”
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