6 July 2023

Concerns bubbling around Coota-Gundagai demerger raised in parliament

| Edwina Mason
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protesters with placards and fake coffin

Community and council concerns at the lack of progress on Cootamundra-Gundagai Regional Council’s demerger were raised in NSW Parliament last week. Photo: Gundagai Council in Exile.

A NSW Government undertaking to decouple the forcibly merged shires of Gundagai and Cootamundra into the Cootamundra Gundagai Regional Council (CGRC) seems to have flatlined.

This is at least according to CGRC Mayor Charlie Sheahan, who this week said council operations were virtually in limbo until plans for the de-amalgamation advanced.

His comments come after an impassioned statement from local MP Steph Cooke, who publicly raised her concerns about the lack of progress on the issue in NSW Parliament last week.

One of 19 NSW councils created in a round of forced amalgamations in 2016, the CGRC, after a hard-fought six-year battle, won the right to be demerged in August 2022.

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At the time, then-NSW Local Government Minister Wendy Tuckerman said it was anticipated council elections for the de-amalgamated shires would be held in line with the local government general elections in September 2024.

“The decision was celebrated following a sustained effort by the communities and council, and we understood that the demerge process would require patience and perseverance by everyone involved,” Ms Cooke said last week.

She said the council had worked closely with the Office of Local Government (OLG) to develop a preliminary roadmap, which was released in February 2023.

Under the proposal, the legal path for demerging the council was to be established after the March state election, as legislative change would likely be required to facilitate the process.

A transition manager would also be introduced in the second quarter of 2023 to oversee the build of the new councils while the existing CGRC continued operations.

It was also proposed the CGRC would cease operations in mid-2024, at which stage the new councils of Gundagai and Cootamundra would start operating individual administrations before the September 2024 local government elections.

“However, since the March 25 state election, there is little evidence of actual progress on the demerge. In fact, it feels as though it has stalled entirely,” Ms Cooke told the parliament.

Ms Cooke said she had also met NSW Local Government Minister Ron Hoenig, who assured her he was reviewing the process and exploring options to ensure the best outcome for the two new councils.

But she said the community, council staff and councillors needed clarification on the demerger process and a timeline for recruitment and planning purposes.

“They need a position that will enable them to recruit essential staff with some certainty. At the moment, they can only offer interim positions, which is restrictive,” she said.

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The council, she explained, was also restricted with planning, putting a hold on rezoning land for housing, which was seriously hampering its ability to address the current housing crisis.

“The uncertainty is very concerning for our staff and the workplace environment, and the community and council would greatly appreciate clarification on our situation as soon as possible,” she said.

In her parliamentary speech, Ms Cooke called on the NSW Government to do what she said was the right thing.

“Honour your own pre-election promise to the people of the Cootamundra and Gundagai communities to support their decision to demerge,” she said.

”Honour and abide by the amendments to the Local Government Act, which you proposed from Opposition, and voted for, and ensure your Government foots the bill for this demerge.”

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