• Tony Bosworth

Labour and Liberals firmly in control of new slimmed down Hawkesbury Council committees

After an often bruising discussion at last night’s council meeting on the new committee set-up which sees experts sidelined and a maximum five councillors on each committee, control is firmly in the hands of the two major political parties.

Under the unique new committee system – no councillor has so far found a comparable system anywhere else in Australia – councillors will form an agenda, pass it to the committee, and then vote on the committee’s recommendations.

The changes – which some councillors say are much needed to make council’s work run more smoothly – came under immense pressure on Monday as independents and Greens councillors picked holes in the new constitution covering the committee structure.

One contentious point is that it’s been suggested committee meetings – which will be open to the public - should be held between 4pm and 6pm on a Tuesday, when most people are at work.

After Mayor Patrick Conolly eventually got the new structure through the deeply divided council – again he had to use his casting vote which essentially gives him two votes – he moved to vote on individual committee membership.

The independents and Greens did not nominate for any positions on the new committees, which combine several established committees into far fewer new committees.

The new Community Services Committee consists of only four councillors - Barry Calvert, Sarah Richards, Mayor Patrick Conolly, and Nathan Zamprogno.

The Acting General Manager confirmed to councillors that the new committee constitution allowed less than five members.

The new Environment Committee has five members, councillors Amanda Kotlash, Sarah Richards, Nathan Zamprogno and the Mayor.

The new Innovation and Partnerships Committee members are Mayor Conolly, Amanda Kotlash, Nathan Zamprogno and Sarah Richards.

In each case, the Mayor had again to use his casting vote to get the committee members agreed on because independents and Greens voted against on each occasion.

Cllr Zamprogno said he was “surprised there is not more interest” in being a member of committees.

A new Disaster and Emergency Committee will be established – the Floodplain Risk Management Committee has been dissolved - with 12 councillors on board, and the Heritage Committee essentially running as before.

Eight committees were disbanded to make way for the new committees.

Cllr Sarah Richards said the old committee structure needed to be reformed and said with the old committee structure there was often very vigorous debate but “there wasn’t anything happening with those ideas. It just sat there”.

But Deputy Mayor Mary Lyons-Buckett said: “I really disagree this is the way to do it. Which other councils use this system of having these sorts of committees?”

The Deputy Mayor claimed the new committee structure was “another way to sideline community input”.

“It does not reflect what a majority of our ratepayers voted for and four to six on a Tuesday is not a good time. We could have come up with something better. This is half-baked.”

The Deputy Mayor also lamented the loss of the Floodplains Committee and said it had done much work and had benefitted hugely from expert opinion, which was now all lost.

She also said that she believed it was a requirement that the Council had a specific Floodplains Committee, given the threats from flooding much of the Hawkesbury faced. Without the Floodplains Committee she was concerned there would be major gaps in the area's preparedness.

Councillor Barry Calvert who is one of the strongest supporters of the new committee system said enough time had been spent discussing it and council needed to move on and get the new committees working.

“I would say all councillors need to get on board. I don’t think the previous structure provided a lot of advice to council. I invite all 12 councillors to get on board with this.”

Greens councillor Danielle Wheeler said the new committee constitution had “more holes than can be supported. It has more holes than a kitchen colander”.

“Having experts [on committees] is essential. You are going to miss out on that.

“We are setting this up for a council in September [when local government elections come around] and we are leaving holes for councillors that will come back and bite our community. What you have got is a constitution full of holes.”

Cllr Paul Rasmussen was damning in his assessment of the changes.

“Councillors here have worked very hard to encourage community participation. It’s been invaluable. What I see here, this puts the whole community in a ginormous strait jacket. It slams it in reverse. There is no way this is going to enhance any community involvement. It’s a debacle of a structure.”

And Cllr Pete Reynolds said: “this is like something out of Monty Python. The Committee of Funny Steps. It doesn’t really follow logic. I’m not duty bound to support this, I’m not going to support anything that is undemocratic.”

But Cllr Sarah Richards praised the democracy of the decisions which had come up with and launched the new committee structure, while taking a swipe at independents who she said flip-flopped on issues while you knew where you were with the major parties, she said.

“It’s democracy when you get your way, but not democratic when you don’t get your way. You want to talk about what the people voted for? What we have seen is anger and hostilities.

“They [the voters] expect more than petulance. What’s happening right now is democracy in action.”

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