The state election has forced the Berejiklian Government to finalise overdue compensation to the four councils behind a legal challenge that brought down exiled NSW Dictator Baird’s forced merger farce.
Until now, the NSW Government had openly defied court orders to pay the legal costs of Lane Cove, Hunters Hill, Mosman and Strathfield councils after defeats in the NSW Court of Appeal and the Land and Environment Court in July 2017.
But an investigation by The Weekly Times has found the government in recent weeks had sought to repay its debts to all four councils, which it is expected to finalise all four this week – a month out from the NSW election.
Despite the legal costs issue being resolved, affected councils in TWT Territory were unimpressed with the protracted and adversarial process.
Lane Cove Mayor Pam Palmer said she was “not happy Jan” while Hunters Hill Mayor Mark Bennett was disappointed “we did not receive all of the cost because the court ruled we should have got all costs”.
Former Hunters Hill Mayor, Richard Quinn, who this month quit the Liberal Party to run as an independent in the seat of Lane Cove in the March state election against incumbent Liberal Anthony Roberts, said it was only an election that forced the government to comply.
“It’s abundantly clear that the government is paying this money up immediately prior to the election,” Mr Quinn told The Weekly Times.
“It’s taken more than one and a half years for the government to obey the judge’s order.
“And indeed the government hasn’t fully obeyed it because it hasn’t handed over the full cost of the expenses to all the councils involved.”
He said the costs being settled were those incurred in court actions, but more broadly there were significant other costs to all councils that resisted the undemocratic push.
“The inordinate amount of time, headspace, people’s time, councillor’s time, council staff time that was spent on the council amalgamations issue sucked all our energy away from core business, doing what councils are meant to do every day,” Mr Quinn said.
“It was a total waste of everybody’s time and money.”
Councils with non-legal expenses
Among the councils who sought reimbursement without a court costs order were the City of Canada Bay and the City of Ryde.
Canada Bay Mayor Angelo Tsirekas had written to the government seeking nearly $500,000 and wrote to the government in late 2017 after forced amalgamations were called off, seeking reimbursement and received polite letter of acknowledgement but “heard nothing since”.
City of Ryde calculated its legal costs at nearly $40,000, while a report quantified its costs at about $1.2 million with consultants the big winners, accounting for $550,000 of that total.
Asked whether the government should apologise to councils throughout the state who opposed the forced amalgamation push by the Baird Government, Mr Quinn said “that’s my view”.
But far from offering an apology, Lane Cove MP Anthony Roberts, suggested his role in achieving the late repayments were cause for self congratulations.
“This is a good result and I’ve been working heavily to ensure a resolution,” he told The Weekly Times.
Mr Quinn said Mr Roberts’ comments were predictable but “if he wanted to claim credit, he should have done it last year”.
Save Hunters Hill Municipality spokesman Phil Jenkyn, who attended many of Hunters Hill Council’s court cases in the fight against the forced mergers said the government was continuing to act disgracefully.
“It’s unpardonable,” Mr Jenkyn told The Weekly Times.
“For the ratepayers and electors of this area to be told by the government ‘we dont’ care, we know it’s your money, but by the way vote for us in four week’s time’ – you’ve got to be joking mate.”
Local Government NSW President Linda Scott said forced amalgamations had imposed “significant costs on local communities – a cost which has hurt both councils and local communities”.
“Councils entered into the Fit for the Future reforms in good faith, investing enormous amounts of time, effort and money to consult their communities, analyse council finances, develop improvement plans and prepare submissions to IPART, and to a Parliamentary Inquiry supported by the Government,” she said.
“Tragically, all this effort resulted in forced mergers, against the will of councils and communities.”
Ousting Dictator Baird! Saving Local Democracy!
When we last reported on the NSW Government’s relaxed approach to paying court awarded costs to the four councils who ultimately dealt its forced amalgamations farce a fatal blow, we noted its “double standards”.
The Weekly Times is proud of the role it has played in the fight against forced amalgamations, including numerous front pages demanding ‘Dictator Baird’ back down.
For impact and to reinforce the community’s anger that he was acting contrary to expectations in a modern democracy, we ensured Dictator Baird was always featured in appropriate attire.
Pemier Berejiklian had jointly led the charge with her Dictator predecessor, but growing anger and resistance to their plans was exacerbated by a lack of consultation.
The unsavoury experience and attack on local democracy resulted in a media backlash against the Baird Government and it was all too much for Dictator Baird who made a shock exit from politics in January 2017.
Less shocking to his victims in local communities across the state was his career switch to become a banker.
Left to pick up the pieces of the government’s daft plan, Premier Gladys Berejiklian at least deserves credit for having the sensibility to pull the plug in what will be remembered as a shameful chapter in local democracy.