A little over a year into a new term, and calls have been growing for the Wingecarribee Shire Council to be sacked. Weekly, acrimonious relationships between councillors and staff, between councillors and councillors, and between councillors and failed candidates play out in public – the Southern Highland News and 2ST being the main bearers of bad news, but ABC Illawarra playing along as well.* But how did we get to this point so early in a new term, and is there any way forward?
Where it all started
With things like this, pinpointing a moment of commencement is always difficult and imprecise. You could go all the way back to the founding of local democracy in the Southern Highlands to find a reason, but I think we can find one of the sources of trouble in the the 2004-08 council term. In that term, council bet a large sum of money on toxic debt sold by the investment bank Lehman Brothers. The exact amount seems to be disputed to this day, and the amount lost is similarly obscured. But what we do know is that when Lehman went belly up, council’s investment went down. And here began the acrimony.
Since council was now broke, there was no way to fund a shiny new leisure centre than sell off some unused assets. Nick Campbell-Jones led this charge, but was roundly labelled with all sorts of unmentionable names by a massive field of candidates at the forthcoming election, including the now Deputy Mayor Larry Whipper. Whipper seemed hell-bent against a leisure centre at this point.
History records that a plebiscite at the 2008 council election rejected the plan to sell off public land to fund the leisure centre, seemingly burying the plan. Campbell-Jones left council, but Whipper was returned.
What happened next
During the 2008-12 term of council, Whipper reconsidered his animosity to the leisure centre proposal and came up with a couple of other ideas, including the current facility at Moss Vale and one at Bowral Pool. After some wrangling, the site at Moss Vale was decided upon. Along the way, a business consortium proposed to build a whiz-bang centre near the Wingecarribee River at the Bong Bong Common, but this was turned down.
During this period, distrust of council was building all along as various grand schemes were proposed and hosed down due to budgetary constraints (in which the Lehman brouhaha played a big role) and planning issues. Councillors who seemed to flip-flop on issues contributed to the suspicion.
As the 2008 election neared, the redevelopment of Moss Vale Pool was given the go-ahead. Whipper released a statement to the following effect:
“The estimated cost to build the Moss Vale Aquatic Centre remains around $8 million dollars inclusive of all construction and project management costs,” he said. “And the Construction Manager will be under strict instruction to bring the project in or even under budget.”
“Council has always acknowledged that this project would be funded through loans and the sale of some Council assets with the remainder to be funded from Council’s Infrastructure Recovery Strategy
Note the funding ‘through the sale of Council assets’, just don’t call them parks.
At the 2012 election, the Liberal ticket romped it home, bringing Juliet Arkwright and Holly Campbell on to council. In 2008, two Liberal councillors had also been elected, but one (David Stranger) was booted out of the party mid-term. Former Mayor Duncan Gair was also returned to council, drawing the largest single personal vote of any other councillor. Gair stood as an ungrouped independent.
Since then, the council has broken into a neat 5/4 factional split, as follows:
- The ‘Government’: Juliet Arkwright (Mayor); Larry Whipper (Deputy Mayor); Holly Campbell; Jim Clark; John Uliana.
- The ‘Opposition’: Garry Turland; Ian Scandrett; Graham McLaughlin; Duncan Gair.
There are presently a number of direct sources of friction.
- There is a question has become whether Gair’s large personal vote should outweigh the large Liberal vote.
- There is an ‘unholy alliance’ between Green-aligned or leaning councillors (Whipper and Clark) and Liberal-aligned or leaning councillors (Arkwright, Campbell and Uliana), which goes against the Labor-Independent alliance on the other side. This stands in stark contrast to federal and state politics, where the Libs eventually favour even Labor over the Greens.
- Prominent local Liberals say that councillors should not have party allegiances and that Mayor Arkwright was not endorsed by the local branches in any case.
- The General Manager was released from his contract by council recently, amidst public murmurings about a breakdown in the relationship between he and the Mayor and Deputy Mayor.
- Mayor Arkwright has alleged on ABC radio that Clr John Uliana is the victim of persistent bullying by other councillors.
- Mayor Arkwright also called Clr Ian Scandrett a bully during a council meeting.
- Dozens of code of conduct complaints have been made by councillors and others against councillors.
- In May, one councillor was accused of being verbally abusive and swearing about other councillors in public.
Where to now
The state government has attempted to intervene via the Division of Local Government a number of times. Most recently, mediators appointed by the Division found that issues between councillors are irreconcilable. The DLG has also said some behaviour is ‘indicative of dysfunction’.
Other options open to the state government if council cannot resolve its own issues are temporary suspensions of councillors or the entire council, or sacking them all and calling in administrators. Such actions were taken in cases of corruption in Wollongong and dysfunction in Shellharbour in recent years.
The forthcoming report by the Independent Local Government Review Panel may set out amalgamations or other changes to Wingecarribee’s structure, negating the need for immediate fixes.
*The author of this post is a casual journalist at ABC Illawarra.