Residents to vote in historic first election

Vacant chairs in the Wyong chamber ready and waiting for the newly-elected councillors to take their placesVacant chairs in the Wyong chamber ready and waiting for the newly-elected councillors to take their places

On Saturday, September 9, the residents of the former Gosford Local Government Area will have their opportunity to vote in the historic first election of the combined Central Coast Council.

They have not been democratically represented at a local government level since Gosford Council was dismissed by the NSW Government on May 12, 2016, and replaced with an administrator. The former council was sacked, along with neighbouring Wyong Council, because the NSW Government had declared it “unfit for the future”. Former Gosford Council CEO, Mr Paul Anderson, was appointed interim deputy general manager of the newly created Central Coast Council, but did not take up the post. Within months, not one of the senior executive positions on the new Council was held by a former Gosford Council employee, leading to claims that the merger was more of a Wyong takeover than a meeting of equals. All former committees of the Gosford Council were dissolved immediately and have not been replaced. Former councillors were invited to take part in the Administrator’s Local Representation Committee, and all did except former Mayor, Mr Lawrie McKinna.

However, the LRC was deemed tokenistic by many and resulted in former Councillors being silenced from commenting on Council issues publicly. Since the proclamation that created the Central Coast Council, the workings of the former Gosford Council have been the subject of some disturbing headlines. A forensic audit of the 2015- 16 accounts found anomalies that could have resulted in at least 50 unauthorised people making unverifiable changes to the accounts. CEO, Mr Rob Noble, said he had no evidence as to whether or not any unauthorised changes had or had not been made to the books. Assets were massively revalued as part of the audit process, and some matters were referred to ICAC, although the Commission has not announced any subsequent inquiry or report.

More recently, the former Gosford Council received negative publicity in an ABC 4 Corners investigation into illegal dumping at Spencer, and its failures to manage the Mangrove Mountain landfill between the early 2000s and 2014, to ensure that it remained within the bounds of its development consent. More matters have been referred to ICAC. In his fi nal interview with Coast Community News before departing the position of Administrator, Mr Ian Reynolds, said those legacy issues had been unexpected when he took up the position in May 2016. They are far from resolved and will now fall into the laps of the 15 men and women who will be elected to the new Central Coast Council. The Gosford and Wyong chambers of the new Central Coast Council have been readied to accommodate the 14 new councillors and mayor.

The mayor will be elected by the other Councillors, not by a popular vote of the people. So who should the people of the Central Coast elect to fi ll those 15 vacant chairs for the next three years? The job facing each new Councillor is enormous, so the task of deciding who to vote for is a signifi cant one. The new Central Coast local government area is basically a NSW Government experiment. It is a mega Council, one of the biggest in Australia, let alone NSW, encompassing the geographically and demographically diverse area from the southern shores of Lake Macquarie to the northern shores of the Hawkesbury River.

The new LGA has been carved up into fi ve Wards, and the former Gosford Council area falls into three of those: Gosford East, Gosford West and, to the surprise of many, Wyong. Residents of each Ward will be able to elect three Councillors to represent their particular area of the Coast. The ward boundaries appear to be an attempt to dissolve the north-south divide between the two former Councils, instead dividing the Coast vertically, with three smaller wards hugging the coastline, and the bulk of the new LGA appearing to be divided between the geographically large and rather disparate wards of Wyong and Gosford West. It will be up to the newly elected Council to determine whether or not to keep, throw out or re-arrange the wards. Some candidates have declared they will immediately reinstate community-based committees, others have advocated the need to quickly establish precinct committees.

The quality of representation the community will receive under the new Central Coast Mega Council is one of the biggest questions remaining over its creation. Fifteen elected Councillors for a population of over 325,000 and growing, means that we will have one of the lowest per person levels of local government representation in the State, if not the country. Then, if the wards remain in place, there’s the added challenge of having only three Councillors per approximately 66,000 people, who can directly address anyone’s concerns. Council candidates have been told that it will be their duty to represent the whole local government area and not just the interests of their particular ward. How the many distinct villages and communities that have traditionally made up this region will survive such regionalisation and homogenisation is also still out with the jury.

A few candidates have promised that, at the 2020 local government election, they will give the community a chance to vote on whether or not to de-amalgamate. Meanwhile, the community now has the task of selecting the best councillors to represent their needs for the next three years.

The two major parties, Liberal and Labor, have both shown absolute contempt for the coming election. Both left their preselection processes to the last available minute, having known the date of the election since the proclamation created the new Council. They were then both embroiled in internal issues, which slowed down their preselection processes, resulting in their candidates having less than four weeks to campaign. Obviously, Labor and Liberal are relying on high levels of voter inertia to get them across the line. They’re both expecting to have one candidate elected in each Ward, for very little effort. The candidates are a fascinating mix of life and professional experience and enthusiasm, all of whom declare that they have the best interests of the Central Coast at heart.

The candidates that do get elected on September 9 could set the tone for the Coast’s future for the next 10 years. The outcome of the September 9 election will have a pivotal impact on how the community’s needs are served well into its future for infrastructure, environmental protection, open space, social cohesion, employment, and transport. We’ve asked each candidate to answer three questions that will, hopefully, shed some light on what they consider to be the important issues for their ward and for the region as a whole. Whether or not their answers resonate with your views may be one way of screening who to vote for. The Central Coast Community has spent the past 16 months without elected representation and it now has an opportunity to ensure that those 15 seats around the table are filled by the most deserving candidates who will truly serve the needs and aspirations of each of the Central Coast’s unique communities, not just those of the NSW Government and developers.

Source: Jackie Pearson, journalist