Mr. Reynolds, thank you for the opportunity to address you tonight. I know it has been a long day.
I am Gail Giles-Gidney, and I have the honour and privilege of being the 50th Mayor of Willoughby City Council, and we celebrated our 150th last year.
I have been a Councillor at Willoughby since 2009, and resident of the North Shore for over 20 years.
In October, the State Government declared Willoughby and North Sydney not “fit for the future”.
Both Councils had proposed to stand-alone – but this was rejected on the basis of an “un-defined scale and capacity criteria”.
We were then asked to submit preferred merger options –standing alone was not acceptable. At Willoughby, we (and I) were determined to have a say in our inevitable future.
Following much debate, Willoughby Councillor’s voted 9:0, four being absent, to reject the “mega-merger” of six councils and propose a voluntary merger just with North Sydney.
As you may appreciate, as Mayor of Willoughby, I am often required to present a balanced Council’s position. Tonight however is an opportunity to present my own, personal, view.
Firstly, I am proud of Willoughby, of our financially strong position and our unique culture reflected in both “village living” and a thriving CBD.
Secondly, I love my job. I love representing Willoughby residents and my community.
I believe there can be benefits in a Willoughby / North Sydney combination – over the long term. However, having had experience in corporate life, I also recognise the importance of a true merger, and not a take-over.
I am proud of the North Shore that we all live, work and play in. I worked at MLC – just down the road. My son was born at the Mater Hospital and my children were schooled in North Sydney for 18 years. I have exercised in Crows Nest for many years and I can often be seen walking the dog at Tunks Park. I regularly dine at the North Sydney villages and am reliant on our shared transport infrastructure, our commercial districts and our medical facilities.
This afternoon I heard much about the differences in both Willoughby and North Sydney. The differences however are not as great as some would have you believe.
In WCC there are 6 villages, in NSC there are 7. Both councils operate a Ward System and while NSC has 15 precinct committees, WCC has 9 Progress Associations. Both communities value local representation.
Each council has its own much loved facilities and service. Childcare, Youth Services, bush care, Men’s Shed and aged care. We both benefit from a high participate rate of volunteers. I believe the Waverton Hub is a model, which should be shared across all Councils in NSW. Why should NSC Seniors have all the fun?
WCC has symphony orchestra, band and choir and a world-class entertainment venue. NSC has the most amazing historic council chamber. Yes, collectively we have a lot to offer our North Shore residents. And I believe we do identify as North Shore residents.
I do want to mention about WCC debt. Yes, there is $48M of debt, which was used to build the intergenerational facility of the Concourse. What hasn’t been mentioned is that the debt is being covered primarily by operational revenue. That is, retail shop income pays to service the debt. BTW WCC has $100M of reserves.
I believe that if we are to have a merger, and I am convinced a merger is coming, that a merger of North Sydney and Willoughby is THE best option, for both Councils, ratepayers and residents – provided appropriate protections afforded to rates, services, facilities and employees.
While I will be making my own written submission to the Delegate, tonight I wish to highlight some specific issues:
• The vital importance of community representation, including continuing roles for Wards, Precinct Committees and Progress Associations. In my view we should be proposing four wards, each with three Councillors, and a Mayor to form a Council of 13. This provides good representation, and allows for vacancies.
• The role of a popularly elected Mayor is an important one. We should all be aware of the risks of undesirable backroom politics where Council factions are able to appoint or worse rotate Mayors; appointments based on political favours is not in the best interest of the community.
• The Commission needs to consider carefully the designation of boundaries and the importance of planning in areas like St Leonard’s. It makes sense to have all of St Leonard’s in one Council, not split across three as it is now.
• Importantly, it is an opportunity to create a vision for the North Shore – enhancing our unique “village” communities, with co-coordinated planning of higher density, optimizing sporting and recreational facilities and the protection of our natural and built heritage.
Whatever the result of the NSW Government’s Council initiative, the residents of Willoughby and North Sydney deserve continuing, effective Local Government, where resident and ratepayer views are sought and valued.