Court orders Shellharbour council to pay government's merger fight bill

Shellharbour mayor Marianne Saliba pictured in February, just after a phone call from Gareth Ward announced the merger between Shellharbour and Wollongong councils would not be going ahead. Picture: Robert Peet.
Shellharbour mayor Marianne Saliba pictured in February, just after a phone call from Gareth Ward announced the merger between Shellharbour and Wollongong councils would not be going ahead. Picture: Robert Peet.

Shellharbour council’s legal challenge may have successfully fended off a merger, but the city will still have to stump up for the NSW Government’s court costs.

On Thursday, three NSW Supreme Court judges dismissed the council’s appeal against paying the Minister for Local Government’s bill for a case the council lost in September last year.

Shellharbour mayor Marianne Saliba said she was disappointed in the decision, but declared it “a small price to pay for our independence”.

The costs order relates only to the initial anti-merger case the council lodged in the Land and Environment Court, which was dismissed, and not the subsequent appeals.

While the council’s drawn out legal proceedings meant the forced amalgamation with Wollongong was delayed, and ultimately stopped, they were were not the reason the two cities weren’t merged.

Instead, facing political pressure, newly elected Premier Gladys Berejiklian walked away from Mike Baird’s forced merger policy two days before Shellharbour’s final legal appeal was due to be heard.

In making their decision on costs, the Supreme Court judges noted that the council had “obtained the result it sought in the litigation as the result of a political decision by the government”, but that the minister’s legal fight against the council was not unreasonable.

Cr Saliba said she was “not really happy about” the court’s decision, but said she did not believe it would adversely affect the council’s finances.

Asked how much the city would be up for, a council spokeswoman said “a matter for the Crown Solicitor, on behalf of the Minister to take steps to advise council of the costs it will be claiming and to start the process to recover those costs”.

In February, the council said it had spent $225,000 for the matter to be heard in the NSW Land and Environment Court.

However, any remaining costs “have not yet been finalised and are currently confidential as per a council resolution”.

“Council will be be asked to consider a further resolution to release the costs once they have been finalised,” the spokeswoman said.