Illawarra residents set for September poll

Democracy will return to the Illawarra in September, but not quite as we know it.Today, the O'Farrell government will introduce legislation to Parliament to hold local government elections in Wollongong and Shellharbour city councils on September 3, making good on its election promise.The Mercury can also reveal a major shake-up of the council structure in both cities.Wards will be abolished in Shellharbour and halved from six to three in Wollongong, while the number of councillors in Shellharbour will be slashed from 13 to seven.Wollongong will retain 12 councillors and a popularly elected mayor.Shellharbour councillors will elect the city's mayor.The Government also intends to legislate a one-off, five-year term for the new councils, which have been under administration since 2008.Local Government Minister Don Page defended the Government's decision to cut councillor numbers and eliminate wards in Shellharbour."Fewer councillors has shown that council can effectively focus on the bigger picture and seek whole of council outcomes," Mr Page said."Shellharbour council is much smaller and has greater similarity of interests, thus wards would not be of any greater assistance in representing the local community."He said Wollongong's larger population and size justified a different approach."This proposed change recognises the significance of the Wollongong City local government area for the entire region."Further, the reduction in wards allows for proportional representation, which allows for a more diverse representation," he said.The former state government sacked Wollongong City Council in March 2008 after the Independent Commission Against Corruption found systemic corruption existed at the council.Four months later, Shellharbour City Council was also sacked after a three-week public inquiry found the council was dysfunctional.Under Labor, the next local government elections were slated for 2012.Premier Barry O'Farrell said he was proud to deliver on his commitment to hold early local government elections."Labor has denied residents in Wollongong and Shellharbour locally elected representatives since sacking the two councils in 2008," Mr O'Farrell said."The shameful recent history of Wollongong City Council lifted the lid on Labor Party politics in NSW, but it's no reason to deny democracy to the region and the opportunity to elect a new Council."Mr Page confirmed the Government would not force a merger between Illawarra councils. He also said the community could have its say on the new Wollongong ward boundaries when they were placed on public exhibition.