DE-AMALGAMATION: To split or not to split?
THE prospect of de-amalgamating Clarence Valley Council into two council areas is very much alive among some Lower Clarence locals.
The frustration that lingers in the community stems from the way in which the amalgamation happened in 2004, explained ex-town planner, Warren Rackham.
"The amalgamation was a farce because we didn't want it and (local government minister) Tony Kelly had already made his mind up," Mr Rackham said.
"He claimed we would save $3 million and instead we went instantly into the red after amalgamation."
For ex-Maclean Shire councillor Bill Day, the financial situation the council found itself in was proof this type of forced amalgamation did not work.
"Amalgamations are nothing new and they are not all catastrophic; it is how they are done (that is important)," Mr Day said.
"I just think the philosophy 'big is always better' has been totally disproven."
This was echoed by Professor Brian Dollery of the University of New England in 2017, when he said the Carr Government's claims amalgamation would fix financial problems among NSW councils were not necessarily right.
"If you take the Clarence council for an example, that just isn't true," Prof Dollery said.
"Clarence Valley has been through quite tough financial times since the amalgamation."
Mr Rackham said the experience of CVC had affected other councils and their willingness to enter into, or resist mergers.
"We have been the sacrificial lamb that has given rise to people fighting against the forced amalgamations in NSW and it annoys me to think we had to fill that role," he said.
Aside from financial issues in de-amalgamation, political representation was also a big concern among some people in the Lower Clarence.
There is naturally a dilution of representation in any amalgamation, with the populations climbing while the number of elected councillors reduces over the same area.
Mr Day said: "It has made it harder for community members to be heard, a lack of regard for small voices in the community.
"But you can't replace over 30 councillors with nine and expect the same level of community contact."
Having worked with local governments from Brisbane to Bangkok, ex-Maclean Shire councillor Ian Saunders said the creation of larger councils created problems with democratic representation.
"Amalgamated councils become multi-million-dollar organisations covering huge amounts of land," Mr Saunders said.
"There is definitely a lack of engagement and people feel disenfranchised.
"We need to decide whether we want representative democracy or to be a subset of the Department of Local Government."
Mr Saunders suggested the representative structures for councils had not adapted to the increase in size.
"They may have been OK with little shire councils but there should be a separate act for the big councils," he said.
"Councillors should be full time and they (councils) need clerical and research support."
Everyone who expressed a desire for de-amalgamation recognised it would not be easy, but Mr Day wanted to at least have the conversation.
"Obviously de-amalgamation is a complex solution to the problem," he said.
"And while it's hard to get the eggs out of an omelette, you can make two new omelettes."
Mr Rackham was similarly conscious of the size of the task, likening it to Brexit.
"I would love to have a Lower Clarence Council, but it has gone so far now that it it would be a long time before it was economically sustainable," he said. "I think now it would be a bit like Brexit."
Mr Rackham said there was lethargy in the community, which would have to change if there was any chance of progress.
"Of course it can happen if there is a will to do it, if people actually got together and became organised," he said.
"If the end product was an economically sustainable council in the Lower Clarence then de-amalgamation should be pushed by the community."
Those interviewed suggested the merger had led to reactionary thinking prevailing in local government.
Mr Rackham pointed to the selling of public assets as typical of short-term thinking.
"The selling of 1 McNaughton Place was planning vandalism," he said.
"Councils should be acquiring riverfront land, not selling it."