A tale of two councils: Will they ever stand alone again?

Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
Till it’s gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot
I thought about this song by the legendary Joni Mitchell the other day as I was driving around a parking lot trying to find a space to attend a public inquiry into the proposed merger of two councils in Sydney’s north, Ku-ring-gai and Hornsby.
The meeting was held at the Pymble Golf Club in St Ives, and there was no access at the venue to public transport so everybody had to drive or get a taxi, possibly a Big Yellow Taxi like the one in Joni Mitchell’s song. It took 20 minutes to find the St Ives Village parking lot, and ten minutes to find a space. St Ives isn’t exactly paradise but it was much nicer 40 years ago before the developers reigned supreme. The golf club had no parking space for its members, so they closed the gates, even on drivers with disabled stickers. The Friends of Ku-ring-gai Environment (FOKE) president, Kathy Cowley, said: “The State Government apparently did not inform the club what this meeting was about. They were very secretive.” The government organisers said no attendees were locked out or turned away from the meeting. Yes, but it took us a long time to get there!
The New South Wales government wants to merge councils, allegedly to save money for residents, but Ku-ring-gai ratepayers believe it’s the State’s way of silencing the pesky locals about the growing number of high rises and McDonald mansions in the region. One of the few people at the 400-strong meeting who backed the proposal was the mayor of Hornsby, Steve Russell. He said: “I am confident that an amalgamated council will deliver substantial savings in the long term. The estimates are that up to 70 million in ratepayers’ dollars will be freed up for community services such as libraries and sporting fields, not the mention better planning.” (Photo of Steve Russell addressing the meeting below)
The general manager of Ku-ring-gai Council, John McKee, played a much different songbook, pleasing to the audience, when he pointed out the council was financially sound, with healthy operating surpluses for the past ten years. There was no need for a merger and Ku-ring-gai was fit to stand alone. On the claims of multi-million dollar savings, McKee said the $70 million forecast in the merger proposal would be small in comparison to the total budget of the councils, representing less than 1.5 per cent in savings — an average saving of $11 per person or 22 cents a week for the next 20 years! There was much applause at that assessment. McKee said: “Bigger is not better.” (Disclosure: I am a long-time resident of Ku-ring gai, and said the same in my short speech, adding “Small is beautiful. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”)
John McKee also compared the two suburbs: Hornsby is mostly rural, while Ku-ring-gai is urban. Hornsby is five times larger than Ku-ring-gai, which covers approximately 85 square kilometres. By 2030, the merged council will cover 540 square kilometres, with an increase in population from 270,060 to 350,000 – much larger than other merged councils in North Sydney. He said research showed: “… In many instances cultural differences between merged councils is an ongoing issue which in some cases is never resolved.”
Among his conclusions: “Both communities are already large and financially sustainable, and the community is opposed to the proposal.” Here’s a transcript of his speech. (Photo below of John McKee addressing the meeting.)
Although a vast majority of speakers were opposed to the amalgamation, a commercial property owner said dealing with the Ku-ring gai Council was impossible: “Never once have my calls been returned. I find them very good about telling me what I can’t do, but little or no help telling me what I can do.” Others, including me, said they didn’t have any problems with the council.
Mike Gooley, a Ku-ring-gai resident for 45 years, said: “The Baird government has betrayed the people of Ku-ring-gai … This is just a power play. The less councils there are, the more power they have.” Many other residents echoed those remarks.
FOKE’s Kathy Cowley said four generations of her family have grown up and lived in Ku-ring-gai. She has been a long-time Ku-ring-gai activist, fighting to preserve the region’s heritage and beauty. She claimed residents have been lied to: the KPMG report on the proposed merger was full of flaws, with the government not allowing access to the complete study. “This is not about people and the local community, it’s about the government streamlining things for planners and developers and taking away what little voice the community has left,” she said. Given those lies, Kathy Cowley called for a plebiscite to allow the residents to vote on whether the merger should go ahead.
Another FOKE member, Janine Kitson, tried to address the meeting face to face. The speakers were asked to direct their comments to the delegate, former Liberal MP Gary West, who will decide the fate of the merger and was seated in the front of the room. The organisers were trying to maintain order by avoiding any confrontation. It did seem a bit odd to me, but we all faced the front. Ms Kitson faced the audience and said: “I’m here to talk to the community.” She eventually gave in and turned around to Mr West, who had said earlier: “My duty is to listen to all submissions and consider them.” Ms Kitson described it as a sham meeting. (The photo of Ms Kitson, left, and Kathy Cowley at the top of the post is from the North Shore Times. All photos by Virginia Young.)
There was another session of the inquiry at the Pymble Golf Club later that night, which was addressed by Ku-ring-gai mayor, Cheryl Szatow, who had a video presentation, including photos of all the awards won by the council – yet a council not fit to stand alone. The one the mayor and the general manager are proudest of is the 2014 Bluett Award for Excellence in Local Government. Here is her presentation(it’s large).
One of the most powerful speakers was Diane Conolly, a political staffer to the former Liberal Premier Barry O’Farrell (she was his diary secretary when he was the NSW Opposition Leader). She said this was the first time she had spoken out at a public meeting because she was tired of the Baird Government’s broken promises. She claimed the government had already decided the result. Although the North Shore has some of the safest Liberal seats in the country, she warned Mr Baird: “There is no longer such a thing as a safe seat.”
If that happens, it will be one of the biggest political upsets since John Howard lost the election and his seat in 2007. But if Gary West was listening closely to all the submissions and considering them, he would have to recommend the proposed merger should not go ahead, or at least recommend a referendum to let the people have their say.
There were quite a few Liberals at the public inquiry who said they wouldn’t vote for the Baird Government if the proposed merger was adopted.
Mr Baird, are you listening?

2 thoughts on “A tale of two councils: Will they ever stand alone again?

  1. One of those attending today is councillor and former mayor of Woollahra, Andrew Petrie. You think your buns are a-twist? He’s ropeable. Our other mate of that ilk is currently fixing the roof in his Yorkshire pile.

    • Thanks your comment, Mac. Was Andrew there yesterday? I don’t remember meeting him. And thanks for organising the event. As you said, it wasn’t the greatest Super Bowl, but a pleasant way to spend the late morning and early afternoon, thanks to our excellent host!

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