I often hear people question the need for so many tiers of government in Australia, but until recently I was convinced it was necessary.
After all federal, state and local government all have specific and important roles to play. Right?
But since the suspension of the council in Wingecarribee, where I live and work as editor of the Bowral based Southern Highland News, I have had a rethink about the relevance of the local government tier.
The Wingecarribee Shire is a beautiful part of the world in the Southern Highlands of NSW, located a convenient 1.5 hours from Sydney. Waterfalls, national parks, historic buildings and world-class attractions such as the Bradman Museum and International Cricket Hall of Fame are among the many drawcards.
It's a popular day trip and weekend getaway destination, a retirement favourite and a location that many celebrities - entertainers, politicians, sports champions and the like - call home. Well at the very least their second home.
The Wingecarribee is well-recognised as a place where many wealthy people eagerly choose to live, often in impressive multi-million dollar homes where they also park their luxury vehicles.
But like most residents, I don't fall into that category. Ordinary working class people in the Wingecarribee sometimes take offence to the area's 'elite' label. This community has its share of challenges including homelessness, and the demands of an aging population.
For the most part this is a community made up of hard working farmers, tradespeople, small business owners, and professionals, many who frequently commute to Sydney for work.
These people are eager to preserve the appeal of the shire while ensuring opportunities for future generations. It is these same people who are mostly represented as Wingecarribee Shire Councillors.
In fact the recently suspended councillors included businesspeople - some retired - a builder and developer, a retired mailman, and a couple of former council staff. From that perspective it was a mixed bag of skills, knowledge and interests.
Several had generational connections to the community. Others had fallen in love with the area and moved here more recently, choosing to step up and be counted in the future-shaping of the shire.
From our coverage of the council, there was little doubt that good intentions and a passion for the community had led most councillors to the job.
However, individual dogged opinions on issues, personality clashes and wounded egos soon led to dysfuntion. Pointscoring, 'gotcha' moments and heated arguments in the chamber at public meetings became commonplace.
These meetings became more like a reality television program than an essential process in ensuring the successful running of a community.
Sadly, bad behaviour dominated our coverage on many issues as councillors became bogged down in the process, rather than the final decision. We made a conscious effort to not give too much attention to the behaviour, but ultimately it became the core of many stories highlighting problems associated with decision-making on key community matters.
Discussions often centred on whether or not the correct meeting and debate procedure had been followed in order to reach a decision. Had an amendment become a recommendation? Had the person who moved the amendment had a right of reply, and so on? It became tedious and demonstrated a lack of consistency and perhaps understanding of council procedure.
Meanwhile, the actual matter up for discussion was often lost in the mix. Frequently, councillors dismissed the recommendations made by qualified council staff based on zoning and regulations. This in turn often led to appeals before the Land and Environment Court.
In July 2019 a report to the council noted that it had spent more than $1.8 million in legal and consultancy costs in that financial year.
One councillor at the time pointed out that 75 per cent of cases at the Land and Environment Court were lost by the defending council.
Resident frustrations became increasingly obvious with community groups formed to fight various issues. Letters to the editor and public meetings by these groups became a core part of ongoing reporting on council matters.
But it was the handling of the Black Summer bushfires of 2019/2020 that was the final straw.
A debate on whether to waive or not to waive fees for DAs submitted by people impacted by the Black Summer bushfires raised the ire of many. Meanwhile a late submission by Wingecarribee Shire Council to the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements left councillors and the community demanding answers.
Minister of Local Government Shelley Hancock announced the council suspension on March 12, 2021. She said it had been prompted by serious concerns about the council's ability to function properly and effectively following a breakdown of relationships between councillors and senior staff.
"Under the Local Government Act, all councillors are required to work together in the best interests of the community. It is clear that the elected body of Wingecarribee Shire Council is incapable of addressing the dysfunction itself and fulfilling this important duty," she said.
The temporary suspension has been extended twice and a public inquiry into the council is now underway. Ms Hancock has ordered that it look into several matters including whether members of the council's governing body fully understand their roles and responsibilities and have carried out those duties properly, and whether, during the current term of the council, there has been improper interference by the elected body of the council, or by individual councillors, in operational matters.
When the administrator first stepped in there were many questions from the public and our newspaper about what the decision process would be moving forward. Would development applications proceed without additional delays? Would the community projects continue? Would the day-to-day business be impacted?
Ultimately, how would the business, usually supported by councillors, continue?
The answer is it has appeared to proceed seemlessly. Matters are addressed in meetings open to the public, but the fighting and the grandstanding has stopped and decisions are made promptly. Daily business progresses, guided by regulations, applicable zoning and the recommendations of the relevant qualified staff.
The middle man, or in this case men in the role of councillors, has been removed and so too has the time wasted on pointscoring and grandstanding.
There has been some fallout from the decision to hand business over to an administrator.
The council recently reported a budget defecit of $707,000. More than $893,000 was spent on unplanned staff terminations and redundancies which have occurred since the administrator stepped in to guide the ship.
Meanwhile as of October 15, 2021, a 26.9 per cent turnover of staff was recorded in the calendar year.
But in all fairness that is not surprising as the aim of administration was to put council back on track. It was a process that clearly involved significant change within the business model. One would hope, that moving forward, the cost impost would reduce as changes wrap up and staff settle into the business of the day.
Wingecarribee Shire voters will not head to the polls for the December Local Government election as the public inquiry continues.
However, decisions continue to be made, and the general day-to-day running of the shire continues with, or without elected councillors.
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