• Tony Bosworth

Hawkesbury Council tip another $92,000 of ratepayers’ money into WSROC even as other councils leave

Councillors voted by a slim margin at this week’s council meeting to keep membership of the almost $100,000 per year Western Sydney Regional Organisation of Councils while they write to them saying they are considering withdrawing.

WSROC has seen both Penrith and Parramatta councils leave the umbrella organisation of Western Sydney councils, which leaves Hawkesbury as just one of five remaining member councils.

The issue came up because Hawkesbury councillors had asked for a report on the relevance of WSROC.

After receiving the report, a motion was put up on Tuesday by independent councillor Emma-Jane Garrow asking councillors to vote to discontinue membership of WSROC, to give six month’s notice and to pay a pro-rata fee of $7667, rather than the annual fee of just under $100,000.

Those supporting continued membership – at least for the moment – included Cllr Barry Calvert who is President of WSROC and Cllr Nathan Zamprogno who is the other Hawkesbury Council delegate on WSROC. They were joined by independent councillor John Ross, and Liberal councillors, as well as Labor councillor Amanda Kotlash.

Cllr Garrow said WSROC was past its time.

“I just see this as a layer of bureaucracy we just don’t need,” she said.

WSROC was created in 1973, but things have changed since its heyday with large councils Penrith and Parramatta pulling out of the organisation.

“I don’t feel it’s of value to the Hawkesbury either,” said Cllr Garrow who labelled the payment, “an irresponsible waste of money”.

“Western Sydney has moved on and I think it’s time Hawkesbury Council moved on too,” she said.

But Cllr Nathan Zamprogno said there was “no compelling reason why we should leave it. I believe we should retain our membership, I find Cllr Garrow’s motion curious. Cllr Garrow has never attended a meeting of WSROC, she has never approached me to ask if the value proposition was there,” he said, adding he thought it was “reckless” for Cllr Garrow to bring the motion.

Cllr Zamprogno admitted though, “it is true WSROC has struggled to find a new niche for itself but I can say it has been acutely aware of that.”

Cllr Nathan Zamprogno

WSROC President and Hawkesbury councillor Barry Calvert, said he was disappointed the motion had come up. He said smaller councils like Hawkesbury needed to be a member of a bigger group like WSROC.

“Hawkesbury has the most to gain and the most to lose by leaving WSROC,” he said.

But when asked by Mayor Patrick Conolly how WSROC’s membership fee was determined, Cllr Calvert did not directly answer the question.

“I would be interested to know whether we are sure that this current level of contribution is the best level contribution and whether it could be lower and achieve better outcomes,” said the Mayor.

Cllr Calvert said, “what I would say is the fee is not plucked out of the air, it is an increase each year based on the costs and most of WSROC’s staff are now working part-time because there isn’t enough funds to keep them employed fulltime so it’s a real juggling act and research costs money but some of the money is used to get state grants, so a lot of the money is used to get more money.

“If they don’t have the money to apply for the grants the whole thing collapses. As I’ve said, the fee is not plucked out of the air. It is a small increase every year. The books are always made available to councillors and there is absolutely no waste going on.

“They couldn’t manage to do what they do now with any less money than they have now,” said Cllr Calvert.

Deputy Mayor Mary Lyons-Buckett said the council, “really have to be careful about where we are putting ratepayer funds, and the thing about WSROC, it has some successful programs but many of those we could participate in whether we are members or not”.

She pointed out that when Penrith Council left WSROC, fees went up for the remaining councils.

“I’ve read the reports and in all honesty I don’t see where we are getting a benefit,” she said.

WSROC President Barry Calvert

“That’s almost $100,000 of ratepayers’ money that as we hear over and over again in this chamber we are the custodians of that money and we have to be sure we are getting a benefit for it,” said the Deputy Mayor.

She added that Council should be reviewing all of the membership fees it paid to organisations on a much more regular basis.

Cllr Zamprogno said there had been a lot of useful outcomes through WSROC and he said the councillors trying to get the motion through, “have no idea what WSROC does”.

He pointed out that the ABC’s Craig Reucassel, presenter of the TV program, War on Waste, “came out and gave a great presentation. Enlightening to me”.

Greens councillor Danielle Wheeler said, “it’s lovely to hear that those of you who have gone off to WSROC have had nice meetings with Craig Reucassel and the like.

“But that has not translated to a change in our own council function, nor has that information come back to us, apart from you telling us you went to a lovely dinner and met Mr Reucassel.

“I think it is unreasonable to accuse Cllr Garrow of being reckless or of not understanding what WSROC does,” she said.

“WSROC does deliver information to councillors, so we can get an idea of the value of WSROC,” she said. “We can make our money go further.

"What you're asking us to do is chuck another $90,000 at WSROC while it sorts its business model out. I don't think that's what the ratepayers of the Hawkesbury expect us to be doing with their money," said Cllr Wheeler.

Mayor Conolly said he was sitting on the fence back in 2016 when he originally brought the issue up because back then there were other advocacy groups that could have proved useful.

“I’m swayed by the argument we could just participate,” he told councillors this week.

“But as pointed out, we are down to the last five councils in WSROC. I’m finding this decision quite difficult. Probably if we pull out it might fall over,” he said.

Deputy Mayor Mary Lyons-Buckett

Cllr Pete Reynolds said, “I find this a bit of a difficult one too, but it doesn’t stack up for me. I don’t see why it should be Hawkesbury, one of the smaller poorer councils, should be responsible for keeping WSROC afloat.

“I think we need to sit back and take a good look at where we position ourselves in relation to other Sydney councils.”

He added that he didn't think ratepayers would be pleased the council was putting another almost $100,000 into WSROC when,

"we have members of our community without proper access to town, their roads have been washed away, their bridges washed away, and so many people that need help, and here we are paying another organisation $100,000 to restructure."

Cllr Sarah Richards said she would rather the council went back to WSROC and ask questions including, “if we leave now do you fall over, why are we paying so much money, is there a way you can get other Sydney councils back? I think we need to give them that opportunity.”

But Cllr Garrow said, “it’s not our responsibility. We need better value for money and I cannot see why we choose to pay a membership when we can already participate. It’s our job to be responsible for this council’s money, not to hold up another organisation.”

Cllr Calvert said WSROC was already looking at how it could be more relevant and he said that was a process he'd see continuing into next year, not least because of COVID slowing down discussions. "It's already taking place," he said. "WSROC is on the cusp of redesigning itself and coming back bigger and stronger."

A majority of councillors voted against Cllr Garrow’s motion and put up a new motion which was passed by a slim majority of Labor, Liberal and independent John Ross voting together, agreeing to write to WSROC and say the council is considering withdrawing their membership and inviting WSROC to respond and to consider its financial model and viability.

After the meeting, Deputy Mayor Lyons-Buckett said, “I was very surprised that after five years in the Chamber declaring themselves as custodians of ratepayer money, the Liberal councillors were prepared to hand almost $100,000 of it over to an organisation which Cllr Calvert claimed was undergoing reassessment of its relevance.

“Paying a membership fee of that magnitude every year is definitely something ratepayers deserve accountability around.

“The decision to continue to contribute financially to the group goes against what many councillors have claimed to be in terms of financially responsible.

“It may have been they were supporting Cllr Calvert who gains a public profile from having a position within WSROC, with Cllr Calvert himself strongly advocating for council to continue the membership,” she said.

In an earlier version of this story we had the figure of $100,000 in the headline, when the actual figure is $92,000. We've changed that to the correct amount.

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