Woollahra Council, in Sydney’s prestigious eastern suburbs, has lost the first round in its legal bid to prevent the NSW government merging it with two other councils and has been ordered to pay the government’s costs.
The state government was keen to merge Woollahra with Randwick and Waverley Councils, a move supported by the other two councils but vigorously opposed by Woollahra.
The delegate who ran the public inquiry and wrote a report on the merger, Dr Robert Lang, recommended the merger proposal go ahead.
During the Land and Environment Court case, Woollahra Council argued that it had been denied procedural fairness during the amalgamation process and criticised the public inquiry that accompanied it, asking the court step in and restrain NSW Local Government Minister Paul Toole from attempting the merger.
Woollahra Council also argued that consultancy firm KPMG should not have been analysing proposals because it was not sufficiently independent.
Chief Judge Brian Preston’s concluded: “I find that Woollahra Council has not established any of the grounds of challenge concerning the notice of the holding of the inquiry; the holding of the inquiry; the examination and report by the Delegate of the Departmental Chief Executive; the review of, and comments on, the Delegate’s report by the Boundaries Commission; procedural fairness by the Delegate and the Boundaries Commission; and the alleged misrepresentation that KPMG had provided independent analysis of the proposal.
“The proceedings should be dismissed with costs.”
Woollahra Mayor Toni Zeltzer told 702 ABC Radio earlier today (Wednesday) that she was heartbroken by the court’s decision.
“We’ve found this an abhorrent thing for us to be forced to merge, it will have a huge impact on our community both in cost and in the loss of our community’s interest,” Ms Zeltzer said.
“We were obliged to challenge this forced merger on behalf of our community for whom we’ve been elected to represent.”
She said the council had until Monday to decide whether to lodge an appeal and that the state government had promised there would be no proclamation in the meantime.
Government News understands that the nature of the appeal will determine in which court the case is heard but it is most likely to be the Supreme Court.
Ms Zeltzer said: “We now need to give full consideration to the judgement, which is 102 pages long,” she said. “We will be consulting with our legal team and taking their advice about the next steps.
“While we’re disappointed with the judgement, we will continue to fight for the best interests of the Woollahra community.”
Mr Toole welcomed the judge’s decision and said it was a vindication that the government followed the ‘correct processes’ during council mergers.
“The Local Government Act outlines what must be done before a council is merged and today’s judgment shows that the Government has followed the requirements of the Act”, Mr Toole said.
The verdict is a discouraging one for other councils involved in similar legal action, including Ku-ring-gai, Hunters Hill and Strathfield.
While many of them are advancing similar arguments as Woollahra they will make other challenges about the way the government carried out the merger process.
Greens Local Government spokesman David Shoebridge said the fight against council mergers was not over.
“This judgement is a setback for those opposed to the arrogant forced amalgamation agenda from the Mike Baird, but it is by no means the end of the road in legal challenges,” Mr Shoebridge said.
“Not only will we see an appeal in this case, but there are a series of separate cases, with separate legal points and unique factual circumstances from other councils that are also before the Courts.
“Communities will not just give up on their local councils and they will continue to fight to keep their councils independent and genuinely local regardless of the pressure from Mike Baird.”
Read the full court judgement here.
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