The case against an Illawarra 'super council'

OPINION

The NSW government is reviewing local government in this state.

A panel is looking at issues including amalgamating councils and the possible introduction of "super councils" with highly-paid mayors and "cabinet-style" boards of directors.

Here in the Illawarra that has raised the perennial issue of amalgamating Wollongong, Shellharbour and Kiama councils.

The government has promised that it will not force councils to amalgamate, whatever the panel recommends.

However, as former prime minister John Howard so famously put it, in politics there are core and non-core promises.

Whether forced amalgamations are core or non-core for the O'Farrell government remains to be seen.

Wollongong, Shellharbour and Kiama councils have all stated their opposition to amalgamation so you'd think that would be the end of the matter. But it would pay to be vigilant.

As a Kiama resident, I certainly don't want my community governed from Wollongong, or Shellharbour for that matter. Kiama's council may be the smallest of the trio, but it has been the shining (and only untarnished) light in local government in the Illawarra.

While the previous state government saw fit to sack Wollongong and Shellharbour councils in 2008 and replace the elected councillors with administrators for three years, Kiama has been an example of how councillors with different views and priorities can work cohesively for the good of the community.

Wollongong City Council, by virtue of its size, dominates the Illawarra local government scene.

This means that decisions taken by its councillors can affect the entire region, sometimes with unfortunate consequences.

Take, for example, last week's bewildering decision to torpedo the $40 million University of Wollongong creative arts precinct on the old TIGS site adjacent to Gleniffer Brae.

That decision (by six councillors who achieved a majority vote while another councillor was in hospital) means that the whole region misses out on a facility that would have benefited generations of young people for decades to come.

And the derelict, partially-completed and inappropriately sized mansion overlooking the Minnamurra River at Dunmore is a mocking example to Kiama residents (many of whom can see it from their homes, as they drive to work or play golf) of past planning approvals at Shellharbour council.

With due respect to Wollongong's lord mayor Gordon Bradbery and Shellharbour mayor Marianne Saliba, both good people doing fine jobs restoring community confidence in their councils, Kiama doesn't need to amalgamate.

As the smallest council, it would inevitably be swallowed up in any amalgamation.

Kiama council is well managed, well led and financially sound.

Most importantly, it reflects and protects Kiama's unique community - something that just wouldn't happen if a "super council" ran the entire region.

Nick Hartgerink is a former Mercury editor who now runs his own media consultancy. The University of Wollongong is a client.

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