Marianne Saliba hits out after Shellharbour council loses legal battle

Shellharbour council’s legal case against the NSW Government’s plans to force a merger with Wollongong City Council has been dismissed.

In a judgement handed down on Tuesday afternoon, Land and Environment Court judge Justice Tim Moore found there was “no defect in the process for this proposed amalgamation”.

He ordered Shellharbour to pay the government’s costs.

Last stand: Councillor David Boyle, Mayor Marianne Saliba and Councillor John Murray chatting ahead of the Shellharbour council meeting on Tuesday night. Picture: Anna Warr.

Last stand: Councillor David Boyle, Mayor Marianne Saliba and Councillor John Murray chatting ahead of the Shellharbour council meeting on Tuesday night. Picture: Anna Warr.

The judgement in the NSW Government’s favour means Local Government Minister Paul Toole can now go ahead with the planned merger.

However councils have been given until September 27 to consider an appeal, which would then further delay the amalgamation plans.

On Tuesday afternoon, a “disappointed” Mayor Marianne Saliba would not say whether she hoped to appeal the court’s decision.

“I’m not going to jump into anything and it’s a decision for all councillors,” she said.

“At this stage I’m going to wait until our legal team have had a look at the full determination and give us their feedback.”

Cr Saliba said she did not “know off the top of my head” how much the council’s legal bill would be, but that “the costs pale into insignificance compared with what the community of Shellharbour are going to lose in a merger”.

After repeated questioning about the costs on Tuesday, the council would only say “the cost of the court proceedings so far will need to be finalised and provided to council at a later date”.

If the council does not appeal, or the court’s decision eventually stands, ratepayers from both council areas (under a merged council) will have to pick up the bill.

The costs pale into insignificance compared with what the community of Shellharbour are going to lose in a merger. - Mayor Marianne Saliba

Cr Saliba said she thought it right that Wollongong ratepayers should share the costs of her council’s legal action.

“They should have been picking up more of the costs to start with because no money was spent by that council in Wollongong to stop the merger,” she said.

Also on Tuesday, Justice Moore dismissed legal action from Hunters Hill, Lane Cove and Ku-ring-gai councils.

However, he found "defects" in reports prepared by delegates into the proposed mergers of local governments involving Mosman, North Sydney and Strathfield councils.

These councils could still be merged, but the NSW Boundaries Commission would first have to redo sections of reports and inquiries that recommended their mergers. 

Minister for Local Government Paul Toole welcomed the court decisions.

“The Court noted that the complaints common to [five councils] were without foundation,” he said.

Shellharbour MP Anna Watson, who has been a strong supporter of the council’s anti-merger push, said she was disappointed by the court decision. 

She said any appeal would be up to elected councillors, but believed they had a “mandate” to further fight the court ruling after an opinion poll found 76 per cent of residents opposed the merger.

“There’s three things you can be assured of in council amalgamations and that is loss of jobs, loss of services and higher rates and I think that’s what we’re going to start seeing in Shellharbour and Wollongong,” Ms Watson said.

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