Editorial: Petition and Merriwa-Willow Tree Road

Filed in Just In by December 20, 2023

THERE were 1,201 people who signed the petition seeking an enquiry under the Local Government Act and consideration of an administrator for the UHSC. Considering there were 8,300 formal voters at the last Council election, it is a significant litmus test of community sentiment. That 14% of the proportion of voters took the time to sign an online parliamentary petition, calling for more scrutiny of Council finances, should be cause for introspection. 

Unfortunately, for this Council it was not. Instead, they claimed the state Parliament petition was corrupted by overseas and interstate signatories. They claimed there were more than 14,000 in the Shire, so therefore 1,201 was marginal support. In reality, 14,000 was people here on census night, including visitors and babies. Babies can’t vote or sign parliamentary petitions. Council sought any excuse, rather than facing the litmus test of the reality, listening to those residents, and understanding what they needed to do better. Similarly, Cr Burns said 50 people at a Murrurundi Dam community meeting was “not Murrurundi”. The irony of his comment was not lost on the handful of Murrurundi community committee members, selected by Council to represent Murrurundi, who also attested the 50 attendees were a fair representation of their community’s sentiment.

The response from Minister Hoenig was that while he will not appoint an administrator at this stage, he assured close scrutiny of the Council, especially relating to the Merriwa-Willow Tree Road, accumulating debt, and financials. The Minister goes on to spell out the powers at his discretion if Councils are not performing (Read: Letter).

But when testing character, it’s not words you pay attention to, it’s the actions. In that light, I was greatly relieved to learn the state government had “offered” to provide project management for the Merriwa-Willow Tree Road work, acting on behalf of Council. The project management appointees will interface between Council and Transport for NSW to provide project performance reports, stakeholder management and attend Council meetings. One of the proposed appointees is the current NSW Construction Quality Manager for major projects, a welcome expertise and scrutiny.

While the Office of Local Government has not yet delivered their investigation into the original negligence of the road failure, after three years; Transport for New South Wales has stepped in to ensure the remedial work is led by them. Thankfully, on Monday night, Council voted to accept their kind offer.

Of course, there were the usual games afoot during the Council meeting, with the same motion to accept the offer from TfNSW, also included separate recommendations to delegate authority to the general manager to approve more than $380,000 in variations without specific Council approval. Considering Council must vote on accepting or rejecting $200 donations for community groups, in my opinion, a variation of in excess of $380,000 should also be subject to approval and scrutiny.

I requested the five recommendations be voted on separately, to allow me to vote for the oversight of TfNSW, but against significant budget variations and contractual changes not coming back to Council for approval. I stated the main items I wanted separated and my reasoning, but the request was predictably denied. It’s developing into a predictable pattern of delegating important governance safeguards (see: Editorial: Red Flag on Merriwa-Willow Tree Road).

I was not willing to forego my statutory responsibilities by blindly handing over such governance to an unelected staff member, and had to vote against the motion. Immediately after the vote, the Mayor stated his annoyance that I had voted against, strictly something you may not do after the vote has been had, but he does anyway. He stated he “surmised” from my vote I was against the Merriwa-Willow Tree Road being completed. I clarified his “surmising” was incorrect and I had clearly stated the issues. I believe Council did not allow the recommendations to be separated, exactly so the Mayor can now run around stating I was against the road being remediated. The record and facts evidence it was not the case. 

On the contrary, I am relieved the road will now be completed, but even more relieved that it will be with the project management expertise of the state government, not this Council.

Kind Regards,

Cr Elizabeth Flaherty

All of the above are my perspectives, opinions and beliefs as a Councillor on the Upper Hunter Shire Council, are my own, which may not (in fact probably don’t) reflect Council’s position, but which as an elected representative I am supported in law to freely express.


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