By Katie Quinn and Emily Wind.
Passionate testimony was given at the demerger hearings in Tumbarumba on Tuesday, ending with a visibly bruised Mayor James Hayes taking the room to task over what he said were “all the misinformation and the untruths that are being told.”
Eleven Tumbarumba residents spoke during the fourth session of the hearings in front of the Local Government Boundaries Commission, which started at 5pm on Tuesday at the Tumbarumba Bowling Club. All eleven argued against the amalgamated Snowy Valleys Council, with a general consensus that Tumbarumba had lost its identity, autonomy and financial strength to the merger.
Accompanying the deep-seated frustration were repeated arguments about an “imbalance of power” on the elected council, accusations that more money is being funnelled into Tumut than Tumbarumba and complaints that Tumbarumba residents are being saddled with a deficit that doesn’t belong to them.
Six of the eleven speakers took direct aim at the number of Tumut residents on the council.
“The mayor and the deputy mayor position have remained firmly entrenched in Tumut,” said William Hurlston.
“Tumbarumba was represented by eight of eight councillors. Now that’s only two of nine and the overwhelming seven do not understand our community,” said former Tumbarumba Mayor Ian Chaffey.
“The Tumut area gets seven councillors, we get two,” said John Bauer.
Cr Hayes is actually a fifth generation Adelong resident, two of the councillors reside in Batlow, two are from the Tumbarumba area and four are from Tumut.
The SVC advocacy plan also took a beating during the testimony, with Brian Wilkinson saying that the plan contained 14 priorities and “not one of which was specifically aimed to be used in Tumbarumba.”
“[The plan was] devised after the fires and in the leadup to the Eden-Monaro by-election obviously waiting for the pork barrel to roll through,” he said.
Others criticised the plan for not including Tumbarumba’s important projects, such as development of a backcountry mountain bike trail system or repairs for Elliott Way.
Cr Hayes addressed those criticisms during his closing comments.
“If you look at our advocacy plan, which has copped a lot of criticism today, there are 40 things in that advocacy plan. If you look at transport, there are things in there like the Elliott Way,” he said.
“When you do present something, it’s always best to present the whole picture and not just the nice shiny bits, because that’s what we’ve got today. We’ve got some nice shiny bits and it’s good when you’ve got the whole team cheering you on… but we talk about mental health. Think about the mental health of myself for example, the other councillors, the staff.
“The staff will be all watching this and they know that a lot of what’s been said is probably not true.”
The mayor had another chance to address the commission the following day when it ventured to Tumut for two days of hearings.
“I represent every member of the community, whether they live in Jingellic or in Adelong, wherever they live,” Cr Hayes said, in reference to comments that the merged council is ‘Tumut centric’.
“And by the way I don’t live in Tumut, I live in Adelong,” he continued.
“That’s something I really needed to let people know.”
Cr Hayes also responded to discussions that took place in Tumbarumba about equity and representation on the Council.
“[SVC] is equitable because everyone gets a vote,” he said.
“What’s happened is that some of the smaller communities don’t have the representation that they once had, but as I said, we as councillors represent everybody and I think that’s a change of narrative that people are having difficulty understanding.”
After sitting through a day of demerger hearings in Tumbarumba, Cr Hayes admitted that he had gone home “quite depressed.”
“Lots of claims [were made], some were true and some we can fix, some were hyperbole, some were fanciful and some were just untrue scuttlebutt,” he said.
In particular, Cr Hayes said he felt strongly about comments made towards council staff.
“In SVC – one SVC – we have exceptional staff and I am truly proud of them and of the work they do,” he said.
“An attack on council is an attack on staff, and the staff are part of our community.”
Fellow Snowy Valleys councillor Cate Cross also addressed the Commission, echoing Cr Hayes sentiments that they serve the entire community.
“Just like any family we don’t always agree, but we are united in our respect for each other and working together as a team,” she said.
“The decisions we make are with the interests of our communities at heart.”
Cr Cross said that as a result of the merger, SVC inherited a number of projects – not as business cases, but as concepts – they had to deliver on.
“I am proud to say that we have completed 93 per cent of them on time and on budget,” she said. “Given the year we’ve had, I think you’d agree this is a tremendous result.”
Cr Cross also shared her perspective on the ‘divisive’ nature of demerger discussions.
“At times it’s been tough for both staff and councillors who face personal attacks from those who seek to discredit the work we do,” she shared.
“It has made it especially difficult for staff in Tumbarumba who are at the coalface of this disharmony and divisiveness.”
Matthew Lucas, owner of The Coffee Pedaler and vice-president of the Tumut Regional Chamber of Commerce, spoke in support of Snowy Valleys Council.
He argued that the merged council is able to achieve greater economies of scale as a result of the larger organisation and geographical area.
“I just can’t see how two smaller organisations that have to replicate their executive team, replicate their plant and infrastructure costs, how is that actually going to achieve the economies that we require to be a financially stable organisation?” he said.
Mr Lucas acknowledged that the merger had not yet delivered the economies hoped for.
“But in the longer term, I feel that given the opportunity they will be able to become financially independent and have the outcomes that we seek as ratepayers,” he continued.
The business owner believes that the current ‘disharmony’ is not going to take the region in the right direction.
“Both regions … have a decreasing population and that’s going to have issues with services longer term, and if we don’t have that focus on the economic viability as a whole we’ll continue to see that leakage of population out of our area and a decrease in hospitals, education, things like that that come to our region,” Mr Lucas said.
“We don’t need to be competing against each other. Tumbarumba and Tumut should be aligned, should be cooperative, and we need to be positive in the way that we move together, otherwise we’re not going to be in a good space in 10, 15 year’s time.”
Marjory Tomlinson from Batlow told the Commission that there are many people in Batlow who want the town to join a Tumbarumba Shire Council if a demerger was to happen.
She spoke in favour of a demerger, and said she wants Tumbarumba to regain “their control and their self-determination.”
“As a Batlow resident I know how hard it is to deal with this council, and I reject the claim that a criticism of council is a criticism of employees,” Ms Tomlinson said in reference to Cr Hayes’ comments.
Tumut resident Cliff Murphy also got up before the Commission to speak in favour of the reinstatement of Tumbarumba Shire Council.
The Tumut hearing scheduled for 3pm on Wednesday ended up being cancelled by Chairman Bob Sendt after nobody showed up.