NSW Labor has accused State Premier Mike Baird for making a “dog’s breakfast” out of required public inquiries into forced council mergers as local governments fear public meetings will be mobbed and residents gagged.
Public hearings into 35 contentious council mergers hitting 77 councils begin in RSL clubs, golf clubs, bowling clubs and sailing clubs across the state tomorrow (Tuesday).
Conspicuoulsly, ratepayer funded Town Halls purpose built for public assemblies are almost entirely absent from the list of venues.
People have been ordered to register before speaking – or even attending – the hearings and registrations close by 9am the day before, or earlier if venue capacity is reached. Delegates appointed by the Office of Local Government (OLG) who are chairing the public inquiries will set the order and time limit for speakers.
Leichhardt Greens councillor Rochelle Porteous said that 135 people had registered to speak across the two public inquiries tomorrow into a merger between Leichhardt, Ashfield and Marrickville Councils at Wests Ashfield. She said the delegate had promised organisations would have 10 to 15 minutes to speak, individuals six. If everybody speaking was classed as an individual and not as an organisation, that would equate to 13.5 hours. The hearings are seven hours in total.
Ms Porteous said there had also been reports of registrations not being recorded in areas such as Wollongong and Shellharbour.
Mosman councillor Tom Sherlock from Save Our Councils Coalition advised people to turn up, even if they haven’t registered.
“These are public meetings and you’ve got a right to. It isn’t like there has been multiple meetings organised,” Mr Sherlock said.
There are serious concerns that many of the the venues selected may not be able to cope with the large numbers expected.
A new council formed by merging Mosman, Manly and South Warringah Councils would have 153,000 residents, while Manly Golf Club, where the meeting is being held would struggle to accommodate more than a few hundred, said Mr Sherlock.
“It’s an amazingly small sample of the population for a public meeting about these kinds of significant changes to local government and local democracy. I think it’s quite bizarre.”
Manly Golf Club said the OLG had advised them to expect 300 people for each session.
There are also conflicts surrounding the timing of some meetings.
Residents living on the border of north and south Warringah would have to chose between the public inquiry at Mona Vale or Manly Golf Clubs as the meetings clash.
Meanwhile, the Baird Government is trying calm fears that all but a few will be locked out of the merger inquiry process. The Department of Premier and Cabinet (DPC) confirmed to Government News on Monday evening that people can still attend the public inquiry on the day if they were unable to register.
The DPC spokesperson added: “Whilst every effort will be made to accommodate additional speakers, it will be up to the discretion of the Delegate to make a decision on the day to include additional speakers if there is time available to do so. Members of the public who were unable to register should contact 1300 813 020.”
Shadow Local Government Minister Peter Primrose said the process had been muddled and that delegates were sending out mixed messages to local councils beforehand.
“The delegates seem to be saying different things,” Mr Primrose said. “Some are saying you can’t argue the case as to why you shouldn’t merge, you’re only allowed to comment on merger proposals.”
Merger proposals considered by delegates were written by NSW Local Government Minister Paul Toole and all wholeheartedly recommend amalgamation.
Mr Primrose said the Local Government Act stipulated that factors such as ratepayers’ views on mergers, as well as the impact of mergers on council staff employment and elected representation must be considered.
He said that other parts of the public inquiry process were also unclear.
“Some delegates are saying that only the people that have registered will be able to speak. Some say they will let anyone speak, provided that it’s not over time,” he said.
Government News has had reports from some councils that venues are already bursting at the seams and the time allotted to speakers had dipped from five minutes to three to five minutes – or less.
“This isn’t an open and transparent process,” Mr Primrose said. “This is a secretive smokescreen and a dog’s breakfast. The government has already made its mind up and now it’s just going through a tick-the-box exercise. It is a rort.”
Today’s public inquiries include a number of the most controversial metropolitan mergers, including parts of Parramatta, Auburn, The Hills, Hornsby and Holroyd; Hunters Hill, Lane Cove and Ryde; Manly, Mosman and (parts of) Warringah; Marrickville, Leichhardt and Ashfield; Pittwater and (parts of) Warringah and North Sydney and Willoughby.
Some of the regionals are up too: Kiama and Shoalhaven; Conargo Shire and Deniliquin Councils and Blayney Shire with Cabonne and Orange City.
The lion’s share of them will be done and dusted within two weeks.
Delegates’ final reports will go to the Boundaries Commission for comment and to Mr Toole. Their reports will consider the views expressed during public inquiries and also in written submissions, which close on February 28. Mr Toole will make the final decision on mergers. Meanwhile, the row over the KPMG report used by the NSW government as justification for pressing ahead with mergers has intensified.
While the Baird Government has insisted the full report has already been released in the form of two documents — the Local Government Reform: Merger impacts and analysis (December 2015) and the KPMG technical report detailing the financial modelling and assumptions used (January 19, 2016) — others remain unconvinced.
Mr Primrose said the government was unlikely to have paid $400,000 to KPMG merely for an eight-page document on the costs and benefits of local government mergers in NSW and eight pages of the technical financial modelling assumptions it used.
He said many MPs, councils and Local Government NSW had asked for the full report and some had put in Freedom of Information requests.
“The Premier has refused to release the full report but under a lot of pressure they released some of the technical guidelines as to how KPMG went about doing the report,”
But a spokesperson for Mr Toole’s office said: “I’m advised the complete KPMG report consists of the Technical Report, the Local Government Reform Merger Impact Analysis and the 35 merger proposals, all of which are publicly available at www.councilboundaryreview.nsw.gov.au”
As State Premier Mike Baird prepares for radical surgery on the state’s councils, some of his more nervous MPs are furiously lobbying him not to press ahead.
Kiama MP Gareth Ward is trying to wind back a merger between Kiama and Shoalhaven Councils, while Nationals MP for Orange Andrew Gee is understood to have been vocalising his opposition to a new council made up of Orange, Blayney and Cabonne.
If Mr Baird succeeds the number of NSW councils will drop from 152 to 112 and Sydney’s councils will shrink from 43 to 25. NSW Labor has pledged to hold referenda on council amalgamations if it is elected in 2019 and de-amalgamate councils if communities back this.
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