Upper Hunter MP Michael Johnsen has weighed into the council merger issue offering advice to the Dungog community.
The Nationals MP is part of the state Coalition government and he issued this warning to the mayors of Dungog and Port Stephens: “It’s about the community, not you”.
With Dungog’s financial difficulties, Mr Johnsen said it was “clear” that voluntary merger options need to be explored.
“Dungog council has consistently said it is non-viable in the short, medium and long term,” he said.
“It is in the interests of the residents of the Dungog Shire to explore voluntary merger options.
“I have told Dungog Shire Council this and [told] any residents who have brought it to my attention.
“I know Dungog council will go to elections in September this year and I strongly suggest to the community that they ask the questions about voluntary merger options and let the people have a say on who they are to merge with.”
If a voluntary merger wasn’t to work Mr Johnsen said a boundary realignment of the Dungog council area would “not be out of the question”.
“The government would be amiable to this but it [too] would have to be driven by the community.
“The government has said no to forced mergers, that’s all it has said.”
Fairfax reported last week that Port Stephens Council had moved a motion to write to the State Government about a voluntary merger with Dungog.
Port Stephens mayor Bruce MacKenzie told Fairfax he was responding to the will of the people in Dungog and had no intention of consulting with Dungog’s mayor, Harold Johnston.
“It’s unfortunate that personalities are being brought in to the whole [merger] discussion,” said Mr Johnsen.
“It is very childish that the mayor of Port Stephens says he won’t talk to the mayor of Dungog.
“This is not about the mayors, this is not about the councils. It’s about the community of the Dungog Shire.
“Pull your head in Macca, it’s not about you.”
Dungog Shire Council was deemed unfit for the future, in a 2015 Independent Pricing and Regulatory Authority (IPART) determination.
Three merger proposals were considered for Dungog – with Gloucester, Maitland and Port Stephens – before the government quashed forced council mergers on February 14.
Last week both a council delegation and a community delegation met separately with new Local Government Minister, Gabrielle Upton, and others, in Sydney.
Dungog Mayor Harold Johnston said the council was “seeking resourcing to support sustainability”.
“The meeting with the Minister was positive and there was a general acknowledgement that there are a number of councils which may need assistance due to a number of factors, including an ongoing inability to attract adequate Federal and State funding for infrastructure,” he said.
He said it was important that the state government take responsibility for the impacts which occurred during the Fit For the Future process.
“For now, our focus is on securing funding to support our community.”
Cr Johnston said the toll on the council during the merger process has been “significant” and council would now need to consider the recently released delegates’ reports on the merger proposals with both Maitland and Port Stephens councils.
The community delegation of Brian Farmer, Graham Murphy and Lisa Connors met with a Senior Policy Advisor to the Premier; the Deputy Premier John Barilaro and Minister Upton. Mrs Connors said the group was given a sympathetic hearing and advised a merger with Port Stephens council would only be possible if Dungog Council agreed to it.