NSW councils and ratepayers will not see reports by experts recommending whether NSW Local Government Minister Paul Toole should push ahead with scores of forced council mergers until after they learn of their fates.
The Minister and the independent Boundaries Commission are currently reviewing up to 35 reports by Office of Local Government delegates, following written submissions and public inquiries, with another ten reports in the pipeline.
Greens Local Government spokesperson David Shoebridge said the Boundaries Commission was “currently operating like a black box” and that the merger process was riddled with secrecy and deceit.
“These reports have been with the Minister and the Boundaries Commission for a week now and councils across the state are quite rightly demanding that they are made public,” Mr Shoebridge said.
He said the government had not said what process the Commission would follow when it reviewed the merger reports or when the reports will be made public.
The Greens are demanding the government hands council’s the reports to give them the chance to challenge them.
“At a minimum, natural justice surely requires that the Boundaries Commission needs to give a copy of each report to the affected councils and then allow them an opportunity to make a submission,” he said.
“The Commission is meant to be a genuinely independent statutory body with an important role to do in assessing forced merger proposals. It’s well and truly time they stood up and showed that independence.”
When Government News contacted Mr Toole’s office to ask whether the delegates’ reports would be made public before the Minister revealed his verdict we were assured reports would be publicly available but not told when.
“The Boundaries Commission will review the Delegates’ reports before they are publicly available,” the spokesperson for the Minister said.
“No decision has been made on any merger proposal,” the spokesperson said. “The Minister is awaiting the reports of the Boundaries Commission and will review those when received, along with the reports of the Delegates, ahead of any decision.
“The Government is aiming to make a decision on proposals currently under consideration mid-year.”
Mr Sherlock said Mosman Council had been given conflicting advice from the two delegates writing reports on the two merger proposals it was named in.
He said that Michael Bullen, the delegate assessing the proposed merger of Mosman with Manly and part of Warringah, had said his report would be published as soon as it had been written and given to the Minister because it was “a core principle of transparency and faith in the process.”
In contrast, Ian Reynolds, the delegate examining the other merger proposal of Mosman, North Sydney and Willoughby had said his report would only be published after the Minister had made his decision.
Meanwhile, the legal stoush over NSW forced council amalgamations is intensifying as another two councils pile into the fray.
Sydney’s Strathfield and Mosman Councils both voted last night take up cudgels against NSW council mergers through legal channels.
Mosman Councillor Tom Sherlock said there were “plenty of avenues for legal action”, adding that councillors had voted unanimously to reserve $100,000 for further litigation.
Mosman Council is already pursuing a legal challenge to merge it with Manly Council, arguing that the Local Government Act only allows mergers between councils that share continuous borders. The Spit Bridge lies between the two local government areas and is considered part of Sydney Harbour.
Mr Sherlock said councillors were up for the fight and would only pursue legal action that had a chance of succeeding.
“We are very conscious that legal cases are expensive but when you look at the costs of between $6 to $8 million to amalgamate councils that are willing to amalgamate and much more if they’re not, I think any reasonable [legal] costs incurred would be very much less than the cost of amalgamation.”
He said the situation was unequal because the state government had far more power and resources than local government and community groups, as did developers and big business.
Woollahra Council was in the Land and Environment Court this week, trying to repel NSW Local Government Minister Paul Toole’s attempts to fast-track mergers by arguing he had used the wrong section of the Local Government Act and should start all over again. North Sydney Council has lent its support to Woollahra’s action.
Meanwhile, Ku-ring-gai Council started its attempt in the Supreme Court this week to force Mr Toole to publish the full KPMG report that the government claims its merger case is based on.
Hunter’s Hill Deputy Mayor Justine McLaughlin said her council was considering legal advice but the General Manager and Mayor had already been given the green light to pursue legal action on mergers, at the end of 2015.
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