Bega Valley Shire residents will have the chance to change the way their mayor is elected, with a referendum on having a popular vote for the top job being conducted in conjunction with the 4 December council elections.
But that will be just one of many issues voters will be considering when they head to the polls, with bushfire recovery, the affordable housing crisis and the debate over the future of Cuttagee Bridge also likely to be front of mind.
As part of the election, residents will be asked whether the shire should have a popularly elected mayor from 2024 replacing the current system where the position is elected by councillors.
An attempt in June by Cr Jo Dodds to rescind this motion, as she said it would come at the cost of other critical community priorities, was defeated.
Earlier this year, council staff said the cost of holding such a constitutional referendum would be about $35,000, which would be an additional expense to be included in the next budget.
Sixty per cent of the Bega Valley was burnt in the disastrous 2019-2020 bushfires and of the 467 dwellings lost in the flames, just 34 had been rebuilt and development approval had been issued for another 78 by early November 2021.
This means there are still many people who lost their homes living in temporary accommodation, although in November these residents were given a little more certainty when council unanimously agreed to extend support and allow them to stay on their land in temporary accommodation for an extra two years, under certain conditions, from January 2022.
The Bega Valley Shire is facing a housing affordability crisis.
Council’s draft Affordable Housing Strategy says 19 per cent of homes in the shire are used as short-term accommodation, only 19 per cent of occupied homes are privately rented and the median rent for a three-bedroom home is $380 a week, which is affordable for only 47 per cent of those on moderate incomes.
The report found there is a need for almost 2500 affordable dwellings by 2036.
A decision that has caused uproar in the community this year is the move towards replacing much-loved heritage icon, the Cuttagee Bridge.
Far South Coast Environment & Heritage Conservation Inc recently claimed planning documents obtained under Government Information Public Access (GIPA) requests showed council planned to demolish the bridge as part of a move to open the Tathra-Bermagui Road to freight trucks.
The group claims one consultant reported council wanted to provide “efficient freight movement through Tathra-Bermagui Road” as well as that the road links the region with “supply chain links to the freight and logistics sector”.
But acting director of assets and operations Ian Macfarlane said council has no intention of turning the Tathra-Bermagui Road into a freight route.
“However, the road does need to be suitable to carry a range of vehicles including cars, buses and tourist coaches, delivery trucks that service farms and businesses along the road, and emergency services vehicles,” he said.
“In road terminology, ‘freight’ means anything over a car and trailer in size and weight.
“Importantly, the Tathra-Bermagui Road also operates as an alternate route if the Princes Highway is closed due to an accident or emergency.”
He said Cuttagee Bridge is nearing the end of its functional life and is already subject to weight restrictions due to the deteriorating condition of the existing concrete, steel and timber components.
Recently, council established a community advisory group to provide advice on how to capture the heritage aspects of the bridge in any future construction or restoration project.
Candidates and election details
A total of 18 candidates are running in the election, with two parties and numerous independents in the mix.
The candidates for Labor are Helen O’Neil and Simon Daly, while Cathy Griff, Vivian Harris, Paula Park, Angus Ashcroft and Peter Haggar will run for The Greens.
Ms Griff recently served as a councillor and the other candidates who have previously served as councillors, all independents, are Mitch Nadin, Russell Fitzpatrick, Tony Allen, Liz Seckold, and Mike Britten.
The remaining independents are Karen Wright, Neil Bourke, Nathan O’Donnell, David Porter, Joy Robin and Joshua Shoobridge.
The Bega Valley Local Government Election will be on 4 December 2021. The NSW Electoral Commission has the details about where you can vote and while there will be about 17 polling locations on election day, if you can’t get to a centre on the day there are other ways to lodge your ballot.
If you prefer to vote in person, you can vote early at pre-poll locations – Grace Church at 14 Church Street in Bega and Twyford Hall in Merimbula will open on 22 November.
Two more locations – the Bermagui Community Centre and Eden Library – will open on 1 December. All pre-polling locations close on 3 December.