NSW Government sat on Pittwater demerger proposal for nearly two years
A petition for the demerger of Pittwater Council was rejected earlier this year after the NSW Government sat on it for nearly two years, despite numerous attempts by campaigners to locate it.
The Protect Pittwater Association released a statement on Saturday saying that the group had received no response from the government after submitting its demerger petition with nearly 3,500 signatures to then Local Government Minister Gabrielle Upton in May 2018.
The original petition – legally a proposal under the NSW Local Government Act - did not need to be presented to Parliament but should have been passed on to the Office of Local Government for consideration, the campaigners said.
However, despite numerous phone calls and emails asking for an urgent response, the group did not receive a written answer until January this year and the proposal was knocked back by the NSW Office of Local Government.
“Given that our proposal was composed with the help of two barristers, Protect Pittwater will now take advice to consider our next course of action,” the group said in a statement on Saturday.
“It is hard to know whether the extended delay in locating and processing our proposal was due to incompetence or a deliberate attempt to delay the demerger – adding to the abuse of democracy that the amalgamations embodied.
“Revelations over the past week of widespread crises in amalgamated councils have simply reinvigorated our campaign for the return of Pittwater.”
The impression that the proposal was lost was reinforced more than a year after its submission, in the response to a question on notice at a Budget Estimates hearing in the NSW Parliament on September 26, 2019, when the government said that:
"OLG (the Office of Local Government) has no record of having received a de-amalgamation petition or supporting signatures from any part of the Northern Beaches local government area".
But early this year, after Protect Pittwater publicised the disappearance of the proposal, repeated attempts for a meeting with Pittwater MP Rob Stokes concerning its whereabouts, and a further letter to Ms Hancock on January 10 this year, Protect Pittwater received a response from her, that:
“I can confirm that the matter is currently being reviewed by our office and we will respond to you at our earliest convenience.”
Soon after, on February 21, the Office of Local Government finally wrote to the group saying that:
“… the proposal … does not meet the legal requirement of being certain, nor is it supported by an appropriate minimum number of electors as required by the Act”.
Protect Pittwater believes the NSW government has shown contempt for Pittwater residents by hindering the passage of this document, while other demerger groups had their proposals more promptly processed.
Ms Hancock referred de-amalgamation proposals for the Snowy Valleys Council and Cootamundra-Gundagai Regional Council to the Local Government Boundaries Commission in February this year.
However, a report in The Sydney Morning Herald last week, that the 20 amalgamated councils around the state had lost $1.03 billion in three years and Northern Beaches Council was the fifth worst performing amongst them, brought problems with mergers to public notice once again.
Protect Pittwater said it is reconstituting after the recent death of founding member Lynne Czinner and the interruption caused by the Covid pandemic.
“Lynne, as a former Pittwater Mayor, was a staunch advocate for the demerger of our council and her enthusiasm and wise counsel are greatly missed,” Protect Pittwater said in the statement.
“However, we are determined to continue the fight – even if it means we must start a new petition.
“To do this, we will need other members of the community to step up to help share the load shouldered by Lynne and others who are no longer able to contribute to the same extent.
“We are determined to bring the local back into local government.”
Anyone who would like to support the campaign is asked to email firstname.lastname@example.org
This week the Save Our Councils Coalition reiterated there are many LGA's still waiting to get their original councils back, along the original council boundaries.
“With two councils run by Administrators, deep financial cuts and big increases in rates threatened, other councils may also apply to de-amalgamate to get more independent management of their local government affairs. With many merged councils suffering million dollar deficits, some imposed by forced mergers with larger financially stressed or badly run councils, the temptation to de-amalgamate is high,” Brian Halstead, President of Save our Councils Coalition said.
In October 2015 then Pittwater Council General Manager Mark Ferguson stated Pittwater’s people fought to stand alone as the Pittwater LGA, and wouldn't be forced into a mega council for the northern beaches without a fight after IPART deemed Pittwater ‘unfit’ because of ‘scale and capacity’.
“Although we meet every other Fit for the Future requirements; financial criterion incorporating sustainability, infrastructure and efficiency measures, we’ve been told we don’t have a big enough population”, Mr Ferguson said.
Recent developments echo other states where a 'bigger is better' ethos was followed and failed.
“The Government has to carry much of the blame deciding to forcibly merge councils at a horrendous cost, pay multi million dollar legal bills for fighting councils that challenged mergers and won and then did not install reporting systems to deliver the promised results. ” the SOCC president stated.
Mr. Halstead said the State Government from the Premier down spent their time working out how to distribute $250 million grant funds from abandoned amalgamations rather than finding out which forcibly merged councils were struggling with costs of making the imposed policy happen and needing financial help.
“It must be time to give voters a say on whether their councils remain amalgamated.”