When a young Marg Lemaire first arrived in Young, it was all about chalk, blackboards, and the future of eager young minds.
City-born and bred, the young teacher stepped into an unfamiliar, very rural world, unaware her life would metamorphosize into a seat at the head of the council table.
Marg met and married John Roles, a farmer, and continued working as a teacher in Young, Boorowa and Harden for 21 years while raising three children, who today all contribute to the operations of their mixed farming Moppity Road properties – at the epicentre of the Hilltops region – with John and Marg still pitching in.
“We were the definition of a viable farmer,” she said laughing, “one that marries a school teacher.”
This she’s juggled with her role as a civil celebrant – which has not only seen her preside over the marriages of her own children but, she says with pride, the marriages of former students all over the region.
The past few years she has also served as a councillor during Hilltops’ first term as an amalgamated council.
Now, following the December 2021 local government elections, a new council, with a few new faces, has opted for a changing of the guard from former mayor Brian Ingram and his deputy Tony Wallace, who retired from local government, to place Marg at the helm with local businesswoman and newly-minted councillor Alison Foreman as deputy.
With four of the 11 councillors females, Marg Roles is proud to say she is leading a council with the highest representation of women in its history.
She follows in the corridors of power the formidable and straight-shooting former Young Shire mayors Dorothy “Bette” Booker and Marie McCormick – with Jan Martin as her deputy – but the landscape they governed in the 1980s and 1990s is now very different.
Gone are the boundaries with Harden-Murrumburrah and Boorowa, erased when the former council areas were forcibly amalgamated in 2016 resulting in a 7139 square kilometre local government area of around 19,000 people which remains unmistakably South West Slopes in geography and industry, centred around extensive agricultural industry.
But for Marg, the way is unambiguous.
“To me, this is the first Hilltops Council. Last time we were just coming out of administration and the merging of councils was still very new and raw,” she said. “Now we’re just starting to see ourselves as Hilltops, so I see this as a consolidating term.”
Outreach is top of her mayoral agenda.
“Most councillors are very approachable as individuals,” she said, “but perhaps what we haven’t been so good at is making that community connection.”
Citing her deputy’s efforts in staging public meetings in the leadup to the 2021 Local Government elections, Marg said she was taking a page out of Cr Foreman’s book.
“Alison – all credit to her – organised these meetings involving council staff, councillors, the business sector and community where there was really free discussion and I think everyone gained from that,” Marg said.
“I’d like to see those sort of meetings more often, maybe once every four or six months where people have the opportunity to see how local government works,” she said.
The white elephant in the Hilltops Council Chamber is its continuing financial viability with a number of options on the table in coming months.
“In a way, Hilltops Council has been courageous in drilling down into the finances to really understand the financial stability of the area,” Marg said. “Often it comes down to the ratepayer base and here we have 19,000 people, I think there’s only 14,000 that are ratepayers and we have this enormous area we have to service, along with expectations of our services.
“It could be argued local government are underfunded in terms of services we offer and we have to be realistic about what services we can provide.”
She laughs when asked about the mayoral learning curve, but then pauses.
“It’s a funny thing now that I think about it, but my father had a background in local government,” she told About Regional.
Indeed Arthur “Rex” Lemaire served as mayor of Lane Cove from 1973 to 1975 when Marg was in her early 20s.
“The genes might be coming through but that was a long time ago,” she said. “I certainly see this as a way of maybe adding to my community.”