Report on Public Inquiry into Merger Proposal

Horizons Golf Club, Thursday 04 February 2016, 9:00am – 12:00pm

160204 Enquiry

Public Enquiry

Today I listened to the people of Port Stephens, individuals, representatives from Community Groups, their elected representatives on Council and the PS Council General Manager. There were about 46 speakers from all walks of life. In Raymond Terrace last week I listened to other speakers at a meeting of over 100 residents organised by Local MP Kate Washington. They all gave their heartfelt views on the Government’s proposal to Merge Port Stephens and Newcastle City Councils.

There were a few alternative proposals offered but nobody supported the current proposal. A few thought that, although they don’t support it, it may be inevitable and they that feared opposing it completely would leave them out of the process if it went ahead. If the Government is going to be bloody minded enough they could well be right. There has been a threat that recalcitrant Councils may be sacked and replaced by administrators by June.

Issues raised

The major issues that were identified were raised from many diverse points of view, but in essence they boiled down to:

  1. Flawed Process:  This must be a political decision by Government, because it went against its own Fit for the Future criteria, and was based on the flawed KPMG reports now discredited financial modelling. The recommended logical merger of NCC with Lake Macquarie Council was rejected, no credible logic provided for NCC/PSC merger. There is a lack of sufficiently detailed information made available to properly evaluate this proposal.
  2.  Unfair Representation:  Less Councillors would be available to service more people. Wards or numerical representation not spelled out in proposal.
  3. Financial Disadvantage:  Potential for asset stripping PSC’s long term Investments, projected rate increases, increased infrastructure backlog. Funding relies on making staff redundant, resulting in less service, unemployment. Savings largely illusory.
  4. Volunteer Organisations:  Fear of lack of continued support for Volunteers and for PSC’s extensive 355B Committees in larger merged Council.
  5. Fight the Government Proposal – Support the Status Quo:  Maintain the current Council, it was deemed Fit for the Future by IPART and is the best financially managed Council in the State. Newcastle is a poorly managed, financial basket case.

TRRA Analysis

TRRA supports the first four observations unequivocally and we are opposed to the current merger proposal. We think that if this particular merger process is forced on us by the State Government, that this community already understand that it is not in their best interests, and they will make their feelings known at the ballot box in the next State election. The timing of this means that it will probably affect the coming Federal election as well. We have an idea why Mr Baird and his Minister are doing this, but we wonder if the political damage sustained will be worth it in the long run. The passion exhibited at these public meetings so far is unlikely to subside, and there are more being planned.

However, we think that the current Council, through its slick community engagement process and constant release of PR to the media has mislead the ratepayers of Port Stephens into believing that observation number 5 is correct as well. The message that our Council is one of the best financially administered in the State and was declared ‘Fit for the Future’ is repeated by the Mayor his supporters on Council and his PR people at every opportunity.  TRRA have well and truly debunked this myth HERE. If more ratepayers regularly attended Council Meetings as some of the TRRA Committee do, and saw some of the goings on in the chamber first hand they might not be so quick to swallow this line.  We know why they got rid of the webcam!

The Mayor and his supporters on Council are canny political operators (as seen in the last Council election) and they have gauged the public’s reaction to this proposal as an enormous opportunity to use the situation created to their own political advantage. They are now riding the massive wave of emotion created by this proposal to protect their own little fiefdom and run a re-election campaign to maintain the status quo.

They have even misappropriated 200K of ratepayer’s money to fund it. $80 K of this will go to a ‘Consultant’ just to prepare a submission opposing the merger. The rest will be spent on sausage sizzles, public meetings, media advertising and letter drops to keep the frenzy going until they achieve their aim. If they succeed in stopping the merger I can just hear Bruce’s victory speech telling us how he ‘saved’ Port Stephens and all we need to do to stay ‘safe’ is to re-elect him and his supporters.

Make no mistake, that is this Councils ultimate goal. No one from Council that I have heard has advocated for anything else. TRRA are listening to some of the thinking people’s ideas at these meetings about embracing reform as the way forward and buttressing our Councils future by exploring alternative proposals that may provide better solutions, instead of just shifting a boundary up past the Hunter river. This is what our Councillors should have been looking at in November when the Minister asked them for their proposals. They refused to even discuss it, despite Clrs Dingle, Nell and Kafer asking them to.

TRRA think that this would be a more appropriate way of spending the 200K if they really want to spend our money on this issue. It is now obvious that the ratepayers don’t need any more convincing about how bad the current proposal is. This money is about to be wasted.

Some Councillors constantly denigrate Newcastle City Council and its Mayor, accuse them of being politically driven and fiscally reckless at every opportunity. People need to see this for what it is, pure politics.  This group were not saying any of this when the notorious developer Lord Mayor McCloy was running the show down there.  Unfortunately his habit of emulating a political ATM (his description), distributing brown paper bags to politicians from the back seat of his Bentley bought that to a timely end. Now that the Newcastle people have put the Greens and Labor back in charge, it is open slather with the politics again.

Our financial unit has looked at the Books in Newcastle and compared them to the PSC accounts and at least given them a big tick for transparency and accountability to the public, which is more than can be said for the PSC books. (See the Link Above)

Conclusions

TRRA recommend that ratepayers consider these points, discuss them with your neighbours and friends and put your own conclusions in as a submission if you are so inclined.

  • Issues 1-4 above are a major concern for TRRA in analysing this proposed merger, and it should be rejected by this community for the reasons outlined above.
  • Issue number 5 is of even more concern. Expending $200k fighting the State Government in order to maintain the status Quo at Port Stephens Council, without looking at other alternatives, is not the solution to Local Government reform or a sustainable financial or environmental future for our community.
  • Don’t be sucked in by the copious amounts of political fertilizer being strewn around by politicians, Mayors and Councillors. Take a little time to look at some of the research done by the TRRA Management Committee and other Community groups on this subject on our website HERE. Read the ‘What the Papers Say!’ links that are regularly updated. (don’t forget the ‘comments’ underneath the articles, to see what others really think) Make up your own mind what you think and discuss it with your friends. Come to TRRA meetings and share your thoughts with us.
  • Be thankful that we still live in a democracy.

***PS: As I write this report, news articles in the Examiner and the Herald are adding updates to earlier articles reporting on the reaction in Newcastle to the claims being made at Horizons this morning by our Council about the financial state of Newcastle City Council. The first casualty in any war is always the truth. Fasten your seat bells this could be a long, rough ride…….

Examiner 04 Feb 2016: Salamander Bay public inquiry into Port Stephens and Newcastle merger 

Newcastle Herald  04 Feb 2016: Council merger would cost $20 million, Port Stephens general manager Wayne Wallis tells inquiry 

Newcastle now best performing Hunter council

Dick Appleby,  TRRA Vice President, TRRA Media Officer

This entry was posted in 2016, Council Amalgamations, PORT STEPHENS COUNCIL, STATE GOVERNMENT and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Report on Public Inquiry into Merger Proposal

  1. Margaret Wilkinson says:

    I attended the Newcastle Merger Inquiry this afternoon and heard the A/CEO of Newcastle City Council speak about the financial situation for Newcastle Council. Certainly not as bad as the “basket case” I keep hearing everywhere. Please read the Newcastle Herald link. The comparative small number of Newcastle residents who attended (compared to Horizons this morning) would have like to have merged with Lake Macquarie but decisions, like this whole process, seem to have been politically driven.

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