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                    [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_23549" align="alignnone" width="400"]Toole3_opt (1) Paul Toole: driving local government reform? Pic: Facebook.[/caption]

 

NSW councils and ratepayers will not see reports by experts recommending whether NSW Local Government Minister Paul Toole should push ahead with scores of forced council mergers until after they learn of their fates.

The Minister and the independent Boundaries Commission are currently reviewing up to 35 reports by Office of Local Government delegates, following written submissions and public inquiries, with another ten reports in the pipeline.

Greens Local Government spokesperson David Shoebridge said the Boundaries Commission was “currently operating like a black box” and that the merger process was riddled with secrecy and deceit.

“These reports have been with the Minister and the Boundaries Commission for a week now and councils across the state are quite rightly demanding that they are made public,” Mr Shoebridge said.

He said the government had not said what process the Commission would follow when it reviewed the merger reports or when the reports will be made public.

The Greens are demanding the government hands council’s the reports to give them the chance to challenge them.

“At a minimum, natural justice surely requires that the Boundaries Commission needs to give a copy of each report to the affected councils and then allow them an opportunity to make a submission,” he said.

“The Commission is meant to be a genuinely independent statutory body with an important role to do in assessing forced merger proposals. It’s well and truly time they stood up and showed that independence.”

When Government News contacted Mr Toole’s office to ask whether the delegates’ reports would be made public before the Minister revealed his verdict we were assured reports would be publicly available but not told when.

“The Boundaries Commission will review the Delegates’ reports before they are publicly available,” the spokesperson for the Minister said.

“No decision has been made on any merger proposal,” the spokesperson said. “The Minister is awaiting the reports of the Boundaries Commission and will review those when received, along with the reports of the Delegates, ahead of any decision.

“The Government is aiming to make a decision on proposals currently under consideration mid-year.”

Mr Sherlock said Mosman Council had been given conflicting advice from the two delegates writing reports on the two merger proposals it was named in.

He said that Michael Bullen, the delegate assessing the proposed merger of Mosman with Manly and part of Warringah, had said his report would be published as soon as it had been written and given to the Minister because it was “a core principle of transparency and faith in the process.”

In contrast, Ian Reynolds, the delegate examining the other merger proposal of Mosman, North Sydney and Willoughby had said his report would only be published after the Minister had made his decision.

Meanwhile, the legal stoush over NSW forced council amalgamations is intensifying as another two councils pile into the fray.

Sydney’s Strathfield and Mosman Councils both voted last night take up cudgels against NSW council mergers through legal channels.

Mosman Councillor Tom Sherlock said there were “plenty of avenues for legal action”, adding that councillors had voted unanimously to reserve $100,000 for further litigation.

Mosman Council is already pursuing a legal challenge to merge it with Manly Council, arguing that the Local Government Act only allows mergers between councils that share continuous borders. The Spit Bridge lies between the two local government areas and is considered part of Sydney Harbour.

Mr Sherlock said councillors were up for the fight and would only pursue legal action that had a chance of succeeding.

“We are very conscious that legal cases are expensive but when you look at the costs of between $6 to $8 million to amalgamate councils that are willing to amalgamate and much more if they’re not, I think any reasonable [legal] costs incurred would be very much less than the cost of amalgamation.”

He said the situation was unequal because the state government had far more power and resources than local government and community groups, as did developers and big business.

Woollahra Council was in the Land and Environment Court this week, trying to repel NSW Local Government Minister Paul Toole’s attempts to fast-track mergers by arguing he had used the wrong section of the Local Government Act and should start all over again. North Sydney Council has lent its support to Woollahra’s action.

Meanwhile, Ku-ring-gai Council started its attempt in the Supreme Court this week to force Mr Toole to publish the full KPMG report that the government claims its merger case is based on.

Hunter’s Hill Deputy Mayor Justine McLaughlin said her council was considering legal advice but the General Manager and Mayor had already been given the green light to pursue legal action on mergers, at the end of 2015.
                    [post_title] => NSW forced merger reports suppressed
                    [post_excerpt] => More councils enter legal fray over mergers.
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                    [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_23491" align="alignnone" width="1024"]Mike Baird Is Mike Baird picking teams on new NSW super councils?[/caption]

 

NSW Premier Mike Baird is handpicking the councillors for new super councils, believes the president of the state’s local government peak body.

NSW Minister for Local Government Paul Toole wrote to councillors and general managers last week asking them to complete an expression of interest (EOI) if they wanted to reapply for their jobs in an interim council and “help shape the future of any new council.”

President of Local Government NSW Keith Rhoades said the application process, which closes on April 15, was like the merger process, “shrouded in secrecy.”

“It’s totally undemocratic. Totally,” Mr Rhoades said. “Here we’re going to have a government selecting and handpicking who they want to form a council.

“The Minister and the Premier did not elect these councillors. These councillors were elected by their communities: democratically.”

Mr Toole’s has asked interested applicants to complete a 500-word statement about why they should be allowed to stay on.

The options for councils include one person acting as an administrator of a newly-merged council or some or all councillors continuing in the new council until the local government elections in March 2017. Council elections will be held for those councils not affected by mergers in September 2016.

Councils may also form committees to advise on mergers or represent community views.

But Dubbo Deputy Mayor Ben Shields, who is also the area’s Federal Branch President of the Liberal Party, criticised Mr Rhoades’ comments: “I think anything Liberals or Nationals Keith is going to put the boot into but he offers no solutions at all.”

Mr Shields said most Dubbo councillors had decided to submit an EOI by mid-April.

“It’s an administrative process. I don’t think it’s democratic but we’re better off having people who are inside the tent. We have always got to think of the community first.”

It is not known on what criteria the government will chose councillors, for example, whether political affiliation or ward they represent will be taken into account.

Mr Toole’s letter has provoked stinging criticisms from councils, some of whom accused him of already having made his mind up on forced mergers ahead of reports by delegates running public inquiries into mergers and the Boundaries Commission.

Lockhart Shire councillors, in the NSW Riverina, have vowed to rebuff the minister’s request and not apply for anything.

Lockhart Mayor Peter Yates told the Daily Advertiser that he had received phone calls from councillors who refused to complete the form because it would be accepting the government’s forced merger plans.

“It's what the government wants us to do to add weight to their merger proposal – we’d just be falling into their hands if we filled it in,” Mr Yates said.

“What the government’s saying is the mergers are a foregone conclusion – it's going to happen – so be a part of it and add solidarity to your community.

“Well, we believe we have a good case to beat the merger proposal and until we're told otherwise in June, we're fighting right through to the end.”

The new councillors and general managers could start work as early as May, when Mr Toole is likely to deliver his verdict on the Boundaries Commission’s report.

Mosman councillor Tom Sherlock said he would not be responding to Mr Toole’s “coercive EOI.”

He said that submitting an application was incompatible with the views of the majority of Mosman councillors that the process had been “false” and trust had been broken between the state government, councils and communities.

But he admitted he was concerned that Mosman would be sidelined in a super council if councillors did not apply for the roles.

“To be honest, the process is so corrupted that I have no trust or faith in the government or the Minister or the Premier that I feel, if we were there, what kind of real power and trust would we have that anything we did or said would have any impact on what would happen?

“The agenda is very much in the hands of the big end of town, those that will benefit from the lack of community involvement in developing Sydney or regional areas.”

Woollahra Mayor Toni Zeltzer said interested councillors would submit EOIs – despite rejecting the proposed merger with Randwick and Waverley Councils – in order to represent the community that elected them.

“We believe that our community voted us in as their representatives and that has not changed,” Ms Zeltzer said. “We are still their voice. We continue to voice their majority opposition to forced amalgamation, we continue to fight for the democracy we believe should still be the heart of local government.”

She said she did not agree with the way the government was pushing its “political agenda” or the EOI process but councillors took their public service role very seriously.

“We were not elected by a group of government officials in Macquarie Street on a 500-word CV and a tick-a-box compliance checklist – the process is not ideal.

“Our councillors all have local knowledge, genuine commitment to the community and a competitive range of skills to bring to the table if we are forced to merge.

“We should remain in the arena – that is where we can promote the values upheld by our community and where we can make sure that any change is for the better.”

Mr Rhoades said he was concerned that councillors who completed an EOI had not be given any assurance of anonymity.

He said it was up to individual councillors to make their decision.

“There’s some chatter out there at the moment,” Mr Rhoades said. “I’m sure those affected councillors will be meeting to discuss their position.”

 

 

 

 

 
                    [post_title] => Is Mike Baird handpicking councillors for new super councils?
                    [post_excerpt] => Councillors’ dilemma: apply or be sidelined.
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                    [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_23475" align="alignnone" width="350"]Gravy2 Nice work if you can find it...[/caption]

 

A small army of experts conducting public inquiries into NSW council mergers, known as "delegates", are costing taxpayers $1500 in fees each per day, resulting in a final bill that could easily top $1 million in fees alone.

Department of Premier and Cabinet (DP&C) November 2015 guidelines Assessing Merger Proposals: Guidance for Delegates give the daily rate for delegates who are not currently public servants as $1500 a day. Only three of the 18 delegates appointed appear to be currently employed as public servants, leaving 15 on juicy consultants’ rates; a daily rate that translates to an annual salary of $360,000.

The crack team of delegates, with hundreds of years of government experience between them, is in charge of running 45 public inquiries into council mergers – most of which have already been held – although ten new merger proposals have led to a fresh batch.

It soon adds up. Metropolitan Sydney councils generally ran two sessions as part of their public inquiries, one during the day and another in the evening, while many regional councils ran three or four sessions due to the distances involved.

For example, the merger proposal between Armidale Dumaresq, Guyra Shire, Uralla Shire and Walcha Councils will involve twelve hours of public inquiries over two days in four different locations on April 7 and 8.

That’s two day’s work right there, before delegate Greg Wright, principal of management consultancy firm Wrightassociates, has collated any of the written and verbal submissions, updated his records, met with councils and other interested parties or written a report for the Boundaries Commission.

Pulling all of this information together is unlikely to be an easy task, particularly given how contentious many of the merger proposals are.

Mr Wright is also likely to include a mileage claim and food and accommodation expenses, as it is a round trip of 13 hours and 1,100 km from his office in Picton to the first inquiry in Armidale.

Since the vast majority of the delegates do not currently work in the public sector – though nearly all have in the past - the government will also be slugged with fees charged by recruitment firms who contract delegates back to DP&C. Two recruiters, Korn Ferry and Hudson, have been brought in and they could charge between 15 and 20 per cent on top of the daily $1500 figure for each recruit, especially since these are senior, specialist positions.

NSW Local Government Shadow Minister Peter Primrose said that this was the cost of Mike Baird’s “faux consultation” for forced local government amalgamations.

“It’s clear that this Government will stop at nothing to push through its forced local government agenda,” Mr Primrose said.

“For a government that continues to bandy around the cost savings of amalgamations it is highly questionable whether this expensive process delivers value for NSW residents.”

A spokesperson from the NSW Department of Premier and Cabinet said the Department was providing administrative support to help delegates examine merger proposals.

"The amount of time that each Delegate will spend on a merger proposal will vary depending on factors such as the number of submissions received, number of public inquiries and the number of councils involved," the spokesperson said.

"Their appointment followed an extensive process that included an external agency assessing the role and its responsibilities and recommending a salary.

"Information on the Delegate’s employment history can be found at www.councilboundaryreview.nsw.gov.au. Once the Delegate has finalised their report, they will provide the report to the Minister for Local Government and to the Boundaries Commission for comment."

The much-vaunted $2 billion in savings from council mergers over 20 years, mentioned in the October 2015 IPART report , appear to be gradually dissolving in other areas too.

North Sydney and Woollahra Councils are mounting a legal challenge in an attempt to skewer Premier Mike Baird and make him start the forced amalgamation process all over again on a legal technicality.

Meanwhile, Ku-Ring-Gai Council is seeking orders in the Supreme Court to force the NSW government to release the full KPMG report that the government has said forms the bedrock of its merger case, after twice being refused by the government under freedom of information legislation. The case is listed in the Supreme Court for April 5.

Other councils have been spending money on community consultation and polls to gauge the level of feeling around forced mergers. Kiama Council has paid the NSW Electoral Commission to conduct a poll on May 7 asking locals how they feel about merging with Shoalhaven Council.

NSW councils will also be mindful of the bills they’ve got coming up in the form of local government elections.

NSW Local Government Minister Paul Toole announced last week that local council elections will occur in September this year for councils not affected by mergers and in March 2017 for new, amalgamated councils.

Mr Toole said in response to a question without notice last week: “This question in relation to council elections is an important one. We have made it very clear in relation to proposing council elections that if a council is a merger proposal then those council elections are scheduled for March of next year; and we have told other councils that it is business as usual and to prepare for an election in September this year.”

Local Government NSW (LGNSW) had already cautioned against setting two different election dates, due to the confusion it could cause. LGNSW President Keith Rhoades said a survey of local councils had indicated a “clear overall preference for all council elections being held at the same time” but the government had ignored the plea.

The 2008 local government elections caused consternation among many NSW councils after they received larger than usual bills from the NSW Electoral Commission afterwards, with many councils claiming their bills were not transparent.

A 2011 report on cost-shifting by LGNSW claimed that the Commission overcharged councils by almost $2 million, through inflated staff wages, payroll processing and unnecessary fees to maintain electoral roles during the 2008 elections.

Since the 2012 local government elections NSW councils have been allowed to outsource elections privately, use the Commission, or appoint their own returning officer and organise an election without involving the usual authorities.
                    [post_title] => Experts reap $1500 a day for NSW council merger public inquiries
                    [post_excerpt] => Merger savings shrink as legal fees bite.
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                    [post_content] => Rally2

 

NSW councils are refusing to go quietly, with many continuing to rail publicly against Premier Mike Baird’s forced merger program to axe forty councils.

Woollahra Council, in Sydney’s affluent Eastern Suburbs, is putting legal pressure on NSW Local Government Minister Paul Toole to abandon plans to merge it with Randwick and Waverley Councils or face Sydney silk Bret Walker, SC in court.

The council’s solicitors, Speed and Stracey, have written to Mr Toole arguing that he does not have the authority to force mergers onto councils under the Local Government Act.

The solicitors contested that changes made to the Act in 1999 streamlined voluntary council amalgamations - not forced mergers, provisions for which remain in the old act but are significantly more arduous - and gave him seven days to drop his plans or face a legal challenge.

Should the council succeed, it will turn up the political pain for the state government and could restart the entire merger process under a different section of the Local Government Act, dragging it on for multiple months.

Mr Toole has said he wants to see new councils in place by June this year but Woollahra’s audacious challenge is just one of the acts of council-led legal obstruction, many of them occurring in Liberal-voting heartlands, which could seriously derail his plans.

Several councils, particularly those divided up under earlier merger proposals, have submitted new plans after Warringah Council found a loophole in the Local Government Act (1993) allowing them to submit a rival plan for a Northern Beaches Council.

Warringah’s new proposal would mean it was no longer be split between a part merger with Pittwater and another with Mosman and Manly Councils as it is under an alternative merger plan.

A clutch of regional councils have taken the same path to avoid being splintered.

Jerilderie Shire Council has submitted a proposal to merge with Murrumbidgee and keep its local government area intact, rather than split between Berrigan Shire and Murrumbidgee, as the original proposal outlined.

Palerang has opted to amalgamate solely with Queanbeyan, rather than lose part of its council area to a merger with Goulburn Mulwaree as well.

Some councils have used the loophole in a bid to merge with fewer councils.

Corowa Shire also submitted an alternative proposal – the same as that recommended by the Independent Local Government Panel’s 2013 report - to merge with Urana Shire Council, rather than with Lockhart Shire too.

But it has further complicated matters for Mr Toole, who has been forced to submit new proposals - in the form of a one-page letter - for alternative mergers to fit around new proposals, such as mergers between Mosman, North Sydney and Willoughby, Dungog and Maitland and another between Boorowa and Young.

It has also meant another round of public inquiries to seek ratepayers’ feedback on the new proposals.

Rebellious councils are keeping up the pressure with a rally, Local Democracy Not Dictatorship, held at 12pm Sunday, March 13 at Hyde Park Fountain, led by Save Our Councils Coalition.
                    [post_title] => We shall not be merged: NSW councils deploy guerilla legal tactics
                    [post_excerpt] => Woollahra gives government seven days to drop merger plans.
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            [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_23549" align="alignnone" width="400"]Toole3_opt (1) Paul Toole: driving local government reform? Pic: Facebook.[/caption]

 

NSW councils and ratepayers will not see reports by experts recommending whether NSW Local Government Minister Paul Toole should push ahead with scores of forced council mergers until after they learn of their fates.

The Minister and the independent Boundaries Commission are currently reviewing up to 35 reports by Office of Local Government delegates, following written submissions and public inquiries, with another ten reports in the pipeline.

Greens Local Government spokesperson David Shoebridge said the Boundaries Commission was “currently operating like a black box” and that the merger process was riddled with secrecy and deceit.

“These reports have been with the Minister and the Boundaries Commission for a week now and councils across the state are quite rightly demanding that they are made public,” Mr Shoebridge said.

He said the government had not said what process the Commission would follow when it reviewed the merger reports or when the reports will be made public.

The Greens are demanding the government hands council’s the reports to give them the chance to challenge them.

“At a minimum, natural justice surely requires that the Boundaries Commission needs to give a copy of each report to the affected councils and then allow them an opportunity to make a submission,” he said.

“The Commission is meant to be a genuinely independent statutory body with an important role to do in assessing forced merger proposals. It’s well and truly time they stood up and showed that independence.”

When Government News contacted Mr Toole’s office to ask whether the delegates’ reports would be made public before the Minister revealed his verdict we were assured reports would be publicly available but not told when.

“The Boundaries Commission will review the Delegates’ reports before they are publicly available,” the spokesperson for the Minister said.

“No decision has been made on any merger proposal,” the spokesperson said. “The Minister is awaiting the reports of the Boundaries Commission and will review those when received, along with the reports of the Delegates, ahead of any decision.

“The Government is aiming to make a decision on proposals currently under consideration mid-year.”

Mr Sherlock said Mosman Council had been given conflicting advice from the two delegates writing reports on the two merger proposals it was named in.

He said that Michael Bullen, the delegate assessing the proposed merger of Mosman with Manly and part of Warringah, had said his report would be published as soon as it had been written and given to the Minister because it was “a core principle of transparency and faith in the process.”

In contrast, Ian Reynolds, the delegate examining the other merger proposal of Mosman, North Sydney and Willoughby had said his report would only be published after the Minister had made his decision.

Meanwhile, the legal stoush over NSW forced council amalgamations is intensifying as another two councils pile into the fray.

Sydney’s Strathfield and Mosman Councils both voted last night take up cudgels against NSW council mergers through legal channels.

Mosman Councillor Tom Sherlock said there were “plenty of avenues for legal action”, adding that councillors had voted unanimously to reserve $100,000 for further litigation.

Mosman Council is already pursuing a legal challenge to merge it with Manly Council, arguing that the Local Government Act only allows mergers between councils that share continuous borders. The Spit Bridge lies between the two local government areas and is considered part of Sydney Harbour.

Mr Sherlock said councillors were up for the fight and would only pursue legal action that had a chance of succeeding.

“We are very conscious that legal cases are expensive but when you look at the costs of between $6 to $8 million to amalgamate councils that are willing to amalgamate and much more if they’re not, I think any reasonable [legal] costs incurred would be very much less than the cost of amalgamation.”

He said the situation was unequal because the state government had far more power and resources than local government and community groups, as did developers and big business.

Woollahra Council was in the Land and Environment Court this week, trying to repel NSW Local Government Minister Paul Toole’s attempts to fast-track mergers by arguing he had used the wrong section of the Local Government Act and should start all over again. North Sydney Council has lent its support to Woollahra’s action.

Meanwhile, Ku-ring-gai Council started its attempt in the Supreme Court this week to force Mr Toole to publish the full KPMG report that the government claims its merger case is based on.

Hunter’s Hill Deputy Mayor Justine McLaughlin said her council was considering legal advice but the General Manager and Mayor had already been given the green light to pursue legal action on mergers, at the end of 2015.
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Woollahra-Councils