Strathfield votes to stand alone on council mergers during emotional debate over the best way forward

It was the night the people’s voice was heard.

More than a dozen residents turned up at an extraordinary meeting of Strathfield Council tonight to make sure their representatives maintained their implacable stance against amalgamation.

They clapped.  They cheered.  They jeered.

And they applauded and whooped for joy when a motion suggesting talks with Burwood and Canada Bay went down.

While the meeting sometimes resembled a rowdy soccer match – referee, chair and mayor Sang Ok issued 5 warnings and overruled 13 points of order by our count - in the end, Strathfield voted to continue to stand alone.

That means no talks with other councils and no "plan B".

Thanks to the casting vote of independent Deputy Mayor Andrew Soulos, all Premier Mike Baird will get from Strathfield by his November 18 'Fit for the Future' response deadline is a letter “highlighting the serious deficiencies, inconsistencies and qualifications” of a report into council sustainability.

Councillors passed a recommendation four votes to three that Strathfield “reaffirm its previous resolutions to stand alone and not submit any merger proposals to the NSW Government, as it is not in the best interests of residents.”

Mayor Ok and his Liberal colleagues Gulian Vaccari and Stephanie Kokkolis argued for a different motion.

Cr Vaccari suggested a submission which, while indicating Strathfield wished to stand alone, added the caveat that Strathfield would “reluctantly enter into amalgamation discussions with Burwood and Canada Bay”

The Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal (IPART) had recommended a merger between Strathfield, Burwood, Canada Bay and Auburn. 

It was as this was being put that Independent Cr Helen McLucas raised a series of points of order – each one swifty overruled by the Mayor.

Earlier, the meeting was addressed by Save Our Strathfield co-chairs Nella Gaughan and Karen Pensabene, who begged councillors to stand firm, reminding them they had all signed a pledge against amalgamation during the election campaign of 2012.

“We expect you to keep your promise,” said Ms Gaughan.

Cr Vaccari put the motion for changing the council stance. Ms McLucas cried “no, no, no!” insisting the council had no mandate to negotiate mergers because it was elected on an anti-amalgamation platform.

Mayor Ok gave her her first warning for suggesting:  “This is a set up”.

Cr Raj Datta received two warnings and a round of applause from the public gallery for backing Cr McLucas.

“That’s disgusting” one resident was heard to say of Cr Datta’s treatment.  “It’s ridiculous.”

Mayor Ok read out the council’s code of conduct – and promptly issued the co-chair of Save our Strathfield with his own version of soccer’s Yellow Card.

At the heart of the debate are two opposing views:

The Liberals believe Strathfield should now accept that mergers are inevitable and open a dialogue with neighbouring councils is the best way to represent the interests of residents.

Councillors Raj Datta, Daniel Bott and Helen McLucas believed to do so would signal the end of opposition to mergers and capitulation to what they see as bullying by the State Government.

Cr McLucas read the councillor’s oath, saying support for mergers would be in breach of the pledge she and her colleagues made to residents.

“Stand by it or step down,” she told fellow councillors.

She also maintained there had been a major change at council from November 3, when she believed the State Government put pressure on Liberal councillors to come out in support of amalgamation.

Cr Ok maintained that things had changed since the 2012 election, and Strathfield was now facing a new reality.

Cr Andrew Soulos provided the circuit breaker.  Telling the meeting he would be supporting the recommendation contained in council staff’s report, he said:  “I’m against mergers, I’m against big government and I’m against loss of representation, character and amenity and increased rates.”

By the time he sat down, the public gallery was applauding him as a hero.

Cr Daniel Bott’s read out Strathfield's honour roll, saying the area had producd many Australian icons, including three Prime Ministers,  Arnotts Biscuits and writer Thomas Keneally.

At the end of the day, Strathfield’s anti amalgamation stance remains intact. What happens next is a matter for the State Government after its November 18 deadline.

Residents are being urged to turn up at a Macquarie Street rally at noon on November 18th – the Government’s deadline for replies.


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