City of Fremantle CEO Graeme McKenzie has sent me an article he wrote about council amalgamation and while it now is water under the bridge, I believe it is still relevant to read the thoughts of Freo’s CEO about it. It’s a bit too long for a blog post but worth reading:
The elector polls are now done and dusted and several council amalgamations have effectively been blocked. This includes the proposed amalgamation of East Fremantle and Fremantle. I made some public comments earlier this week that some people found contradictory so wanted to explain myself in a little more detail.
The confusion lay in the fact that I firstly outlined what a missed opportunity this was for East Fremantle residents and the region in general. I then went on to say how much the process was flawed. Many took that as contradictory, but it isn’t.
There is a very big difference between a confused process and what I think would be very clear benefits once the merger had occurred…let me explain.
Yes it was a flawed process – no question
The process has been shambolic to say the least – how can the government allow eight mergers through boundary adjustments, denying those communities a say in their futures while allowing three mergers to proceed under amalgamation rules which provide for a poll?
How can large local governments like Canning be boundary adjusted out of existence while a council the size of East Fremantle is allowed a vote? Surely the people making the decisions would have realised that East Fremantle had every chance of mobilising their relatively small community to reach the required vote to overturn the government’s plans? Surely, as a matter of equity and fairness, it should have been all boundary adjustments or all amalgamations.
I did say that I respect the vote, but the process the government undertook for this reform has failed dismally – a point the Premier acknowledged this week in the media.
But the benefits achieved could have been significant
The outcome that could have been achieved from this amalgamation is a totally different matter. For me, council reform has always been about the capacity to deliver services and facilities to our community. This was also the government’s rationale but wasn’t explained well enough by them.
Let me put it as simply as I can. East Fremantle has a budget of about $8 million of which about $6.5 million might be untied (that is it can be used however the council sees fit). Fremantle has a budget of $90 million of which about $60 million is untied.
A generally accepted benchmark is that a council should have about 30% of its untied revenue available for capital works or new initiatives each year. That gives East Fremantle about $2 million to spend each year on major maintenance, upgrade or replacement of facilities, parks, roads, footpaths, foreshores etc compared to Fremantle that can spend around $18 million each year on capital and new initiatives.
On its own, that differential allows Fremantle to undertake more and larger projects for the community. Add to that the ability to leverage significant grants from both state and federal government from $18 million compared to $2 million. And add to that again the ability to borrow significantly more (in gross terms) and you start to get an understanding of what capacity means.
I often give the extreme example of the Gold Coast City Council in Queensland. It has a budget of $1.5 billion of which over $500 million is untied and available for capital projects and new initiatives. It was able to leverage $800 million from the federal government for a light rail system down the coast with a contribution of $200 million of its own funds. It was also able to build eight new libraries and completely refurbish its five existing libraries in just 11 years.
I don’t support a Queensland model here in WA, but you really understand capacity when you look at that example. Under the reform that was proposed, the larger City of Fremantle would have doubled its population and added about a third to its budget. This would have increased the opportunity to provide significant new or upgraded infrastructure for the community – with this I mean major capital programs that can really enrich people’s lives.
There are clearly efficiencies to be gained from larger local governments although this does need to be weighed up against local democracy, hence one of the reasons I don’t support the Queensland model of local government for WA. Those efficiencies of scale were achievable under the Fremantle proposal, but with the outcome of the poll, both the efficiency and capability benefits have now been lost – for a while at least.
I do expect sometime in the not too distant future there will be another crack at council reform by a state government, but maybe next time we’ll end up with a different approach. I fear that given what’s happened this time around, the new approach won’t be consultative.
Graeme McKenzie-CEO City of Fremantle
As anticipated residents of East Fremantle today rejected the amalgamation with Fremantle. From 5178 eligible voters 2145 voted no, 680 yes and 6 informal. The Dadour Act provided the democracy and community feed-back that should be essential for major government changes.
If there is to be one consequence out of the shambles the so-called Western Australian local government reform has been it is the resignation of Local Government Minister Tony Simpson. It matters little that Simpson appears to be a nice bloke because the way the reform process has been handled was an unmitigated fiasco.
The Dadour Act election has shown how passionate-and parochial-people are about their councils, and that they were willing to forget all the previous criticism of those councils and the elected members and rather hold on to a far from perfect status quo than embrace reform and enlarged councils.
One of the major victims of the reform has been Subiaco that was swallowed up by the City of Vincent, but the purpose of the reform was to get rid of ineffective and expensive small councils like Peppermint Grove, Mosman Park, East Fremantle, etc. That has not been achieved because the democratic process showed a severe lack of community consultation before the government embarked on trying to force the amalgamations through.
Will Minister Simpson and Premier Colin Barnett now pull their head in and forget about local government reform, or will they try to merge East Fremantle with Melville and Fremantle with Cockburn? Stubbornness and stupidity are close friends!
The reform has been a shameful and unprofessional exercise in incompetence and heads should roll in the department. The process has set back councils by many months and halted development and planning and it wasted an enormous amount of time and money for councils to try to come to agreements about the future of the to be amalgamated cities. There will no doubt be a backlash from investors and developers who would have embraced larger councils in the hope for a more streamlined and faster planning process.
There were communities like Fremantle who were hopeful that local government reform would give them the chance to vote a whole new council in and start afresh with new energy, and the hope that better and more sincere community consultation might be the outcome. All over W.A. communities have been bitterly complaining about no longer being heard by their elected members.
Having said all that it was special to watch democracy at work and we should never underestimate what privilege it is. That also applies to local councils where a majority vote is required. There are always losers and winners in that process.
There has been quite a bit of misleading and factually wrong information going out to support the No vote against East Fremantle amalgamating with Fremantle, so let’s read what Freo’s Mayor Brad Pettitt has to say about it:
As of Monday morning 46.27% of East Fremantle residents have voted on the poll around amalgamation with Fremantle Council. To put this another way – just another 193 more people are required to vote by Saturday for the poll to be valid. As this vote steadily heads towards the 50% required I can’t help but wonder where this all might end up. Assuming it makes the 50% the odds would suggest many of those who voted did so to oppose the amalgamation and as a result the whole amalgamation will be off.
While I’d be disappointed after so much community time and effort has gone into getting a sensible merger plan up for a new greater Fremantle, I’ve ultimately got no problem with this result so long as people did vote with the correct information in front of them.
Unfortunately the ads in Fremantle Herald in recent weeks certainly aren’t providing that accurate information for East Fremantle voters. So this blog post aims to correct the record so people can vote with the facts in front of them.
Fremantle and East Fremantle councils have been working well together for many months to get an outcome that is good for both. I’ve been pleased with the level of collaboration.
Mayors (along with possibly the deputy mayors and an independent chair) as interim commissioners is the most sensible way of keeping a continuity of representation and decision making going. No conflict of interest that I can see given many of us were elected to 2017 anyway. But ultimately this is the Minister’s call not ours.
Fremantle Council’s finances are in a very strong position. You may have seen last week in The West that Fremantle’s cash reserves increased more than any other local government’s over the last few years. Our debt is smaller than this and Fremantle’s finances are strong by every empirical measure.
Fremantle has won a number of awards for it town planning (amongst other things) in recent years and this council has recently ushered in some major changes to our town planning scheme to kick off the revitalisation of the Fremantle CBD. It is pleasing to see these changes now gaining momentum on the ground.
The apparent quote from me “that the reason the Barnett Government wanted Fremantle to take over East Fremantle was because [Fremantle Council is] “pro-development”” is simply incorrect. I have publically said “At the heart of [Fremantle not been forced to merge with Melville] was demonstrating the Fremantle was committed to substantial population growth, economic investment and keeping Fremantle as Perth’s second city. The pro-development approach whilst controversial for some in the community was undoubtedly important to demonstrating to the local government advisory board and the State Government that Fremantle could be a sustainable local government area by itself into the future”. This is quite a different and it is been missed used in this context.
As for the silly idea that Fremantle Council can’t wait to build “massive high-rise development” on East Fremantle oval or View Terrace or Leeuwin Barracks. Again this is just wrong and just plain old scaremongering. Fremantle Council have always said we respect the existing East Fremantle town planning scheme.
Finally, all I’d say to East Fremantle residents is: it is entirely up to you as to how you vote and I have no desire to influence this important decision other than to say please don’t take what is written in these ads as accurate. Instead, dig a little deeper and see what both options might mean for you going forward. Here is some Freo info that might also help: http://www.fremantle.wa.gov.au/cityoffremantle/Local_government_reform
Fremantle Council will only sit six more times before a Commissioner takes over to implement the amalgamation with East Fremantle-unless the East Fremantle Dadour Act vote on February 7 does get the required 50% of votes against a council merger. This means the Fremantle community needs to start being pro-active and have a conversation about what type of new Councillors we want here, as the supersized new City of Fremantle will not only bring new boundaries but also new challenges for our Elected Members.
How satisfied have YOU been with the performance of the individual Councillors, who are the ones you want to get rid off, and who would you like to continue on Fremantle Council? Who in our community could be possible candidates and how will we convince them to nominate for Council at the next election? Who are the real community leaders who actually listen to us, instead of the tokenism community consultation has become in Fremantle? Who would we like to step up and come forward to represent us?
These are very important questions that need to be debated. We have quite a few sitting members who have been unopposed for years and there is huge dissatisfaction in the community about the consultation process and inconsistent decision-making, as well as with parts of the administration.
Fremantle needs to grow and improve but to do so we need a Council of realists who have real and achievable visions and who are not constraint by ideology and blinkered views.
The only way forward for Fremantle is to start fresh and to not let the slogan “Let’s Finish What We Started” sway us that we need to keep the present mob in power. My personal overall rating of Fremantle Council over the last four years is DISAPPOINTING, INCONSISTENT, BAD HEARING.
Here are some thoughts from East Fremantle Councillor Michael McPhail on the amalgamation:
The decision on February will present the option of merging the Town of East Fremantle (7000 residents) with a new City of Fremantle that will double in size to 66,000 residents (taking in areas that generate significant rates to the south and east).
The most significant event that is to happen to our community in the next decade will be the construction of the Perth Freight Link, a six-lane freight freeway from Kewdale to Stirling Bridge. This new freeway will lead to a doubling of port freight (and carcinogens) through our suburb in the next decade, as well as removal of Marmion Street access from Stirling Hwy.
A number of academics have proposed models of local government reform that are far more nuanced and thoughtful than the options we have on the table for February 7.
I lament that the State Government ran a process that would make a flock of ostriches proud. Indeed, this seems the standard approach by all State Governments when they discuss local government ‘reform’. The hope of getting a more enlightened set of options to choose from is as low as Colin Barnett’s approval rating.
If both very large and very small local governments have issues with remaining accountable, I would suggest there is a sweet spot in the middle. At 66,000 people, the new City of Fremantle would be the third smallest local government in Perth (post-amalgamation).
In my view, this is the Goldilocks size: not too large, not too small, but just about right.
The decision we (East Fremantle) have to make on February 7 is not whether the current structure served East Fremantle well over the last 120 years, but whether it will serve us well over the next 120 years. This is not an easy question to answer and people will have different opinions. However, I wanted to highlight that the answer to this question requires far more thought that some would have you believe.
Forming the Municipality of East Fremantle made a lot of sense 118 years ago and served our suburb reasonably well for the 20th century. However, I do think the challenges that face our suburb are becoming and will be far more advanced and substantial than our little local government was designed for. Significant change is always difficult to back. It requires stepping outside your comfort zone and relying on vision rather than history. However, when I ask the question: will our current structure be the best structure for the next 118 years? I can only but answer no.