VOTERS returned elected representatives to Port Macquarie-Hastings Council in September. Lisa Tisdell asked mayor Peter Besseling to reflect on the elected council’s first three months and cast his mind ahead to what next year could hold.
Q: Soon after the election, you said the future was with a united council.
Do we have a united council and why or why not?
A: Definitely. I think the community should be pleased that council has been working well together.
The signs are good.
There has been genuine cooperation looking at the best interests of the community, rather than individual political machinations.
There has been a real desire from all councillors to understand some of the big issues facing the community, but more than that, there has been a lot of work gone into briefings and putting questions to staff and all councillors have been actively engaged in that to their credit.
Q: What has the councillors’ learning curve been like?
A: I think all councillors have had a steep learning curve.
With all due respect, even Trevor [Sargeant] and Lisa [Intemann], who had local government experience, it’s a different ball game than it was four-and-a-half years ago.
I think it will still take some time for people who haven’t been involved in local government to understand all the minute details, but I think given the work that has been put in by councillors, there is a broad understanding of how local government works and what needs to occur locally to make it work more cooperatively with the community.
Q: What needs to happen to make local government work more cooperatively with the community?
A: Broadly speaking, having an elected council back is a huge step in the right direction for a start.
I also think in terms of the relationships, what can build up over time without that elected representation is a bit of a bunker mentality.
I think within the council itself there has been a genuine excitement about having councillors back to take on that community engagement role.
I think it’s not something simply that is being driven by the community to see that engagement and those engagement processes work better.
It has also been driven within the council itself.
It’s not an us and them [situation].
Everyone is wanting to see this work well.
We live here, we have our families here and we all get the benefits from it if it works well.
Q: Has an elected council returned a greater voice to the community?
A: Definitely. It’s councillors’ role to promote those voices to a large extent.
We are elected to make decisions but those decisions need to be based on having the relevant information, getting the feedback from council staff, and more importantly the community, and making decisions that are in the best interest of the entire local government area.
Q: What are your thoughts about the first three months as mayor?
A: It has been a busy three months for everyone - councillors and council staff as well.
I take my hat off to the amount of work they have put in to get councillors to this point as well.
I think there seems to be a very positive feeling in the community and an excitement about the opportunities ahead.
We need to capture those and capitalise on that breadth of community spirit.
Q: How have you found the job?
A: Although this is supposedly a part-time role, it’s anything but.
Having said that, I know the task in front of us and I think all the councillors are the same in that the focus is on getting it right, and certainly within the first few months, the effort that was required from everyone has been significant.
Q: Tell us about the highlights.
A: I think it was a combination of the Olympic parade, Tastings on Hastings and the various Christmas carols around the local government area that have all shown there is a broad community spirit that we need to tap into.
If council can enable events like that to showcase it, collect it and to harness it, given that’s a big part of what this community is all about.
For me, those are the reasons why we all love living here, apart from the natural beauty.
It’s also the great people here as well.
We were able to move forward as a council on a number of infrastructure projects such as the airport [expansion], Kooloonbung Creek bridge, the expansion of the indoor stadium, and the village sewerage scheme, which will see Long Flat, Beechwood, Telegraph Point, North Shore and Comboyne all supplied with a sewer service.
Q: What is the toughest part of the mayoral job?
A: Time ... having time to do things other than speaking to people, getting background briefings from people, dealing with issues, dealing with emails, getting out and about to all corners of the local government area to touch base with everyone.
That has been the most difficult and finding time for my other work and for my family, and somewhere along the line, for myself.
The balance is the difficult thing.
The first quarter was always going to be tough. We will wait and see what 2013, 2014 and 2015 have in store.
Q: What are the main issues the community has approached you about?
A: It is no surprise roads are top of mind for most people.
That is more of a systemic failure than simply mismanagement or lack of consideration by council.
When I say systemic failure, I’m talking about lack of funding available to deal with the large backlog of works that we have.
We are starting to address some of the maintenance issues and we are working smarter with how we deal with the roads.
In terms of sealing, a lot of the roads that need to be sealed at this point in time, that progress is underway, but it’s the rebuilding of the roads in really bad condition that gets put off until funds are available.
That has an impact right across the local government area.
For example, Coffs Harbour council and our council are roughly the same size in terms of numbers [population].
We are about 3000 people more than the Coffs Harbour local government area, yet we are three times the area in terms of square kilometres, and with it brings the additional burden of trying to manage a much larger road network.
We are hamstrung by people’s capacity to pay in terms of rates but also by the amount of dollars we can increase rates by.
I don’t see this as a rating issue as such.
This is more of a federal-state government support issue and it’s not exclusive to this local government area.
Q: Next year will hold the results of the statewide review into local government. What is on your wish list as a result of the review?
A: I would make it very simple.
Most, if not all, of the direct funding issues could be solved if the state government took responsibility for roads - pure and simple.
I know it wouldn’t be popular at all with the state government but it’s either they have the responsibility for it or they adequately fund councils to address the maintenance issues we have.
We are essentially asset managers and we are unable to manage the road assets that we have with a lack of funds.
Essentially our hands are tied behind our back.
I would suggest something needs to occur urgently or this situation will come to a crisis point in the very near future across all Mid-North Coast councils.
Rural and regional communities are completely different to metropolitan communities when it comes to road infrastructure.
Q: What do you think the result of the local government review will be?
A: There will be what they call boundary adjustments put forward.
In layman’s terms, we are talking amalgamations, but it’s unclear at this point whether they will be restricted to metropolitan councils or whether they will work towards amalgamating regional and rural councils as well.
Q: What do we do in the meantime?
A: In the meantime, we let it be known our feelings.
We’ve made those feelings known and we will continue to make them known.
Whenever we have an opportunity to have input into that process, we will provide feedback and commentary.
Council is firmly of the belief, that within the Mid-North Coast in particular, councils service communities of interest that basically follow the rivers and there is more to be gained by working cooperatively and collaboratively through the Mid-North Coast regional organisation of councils without the need for amalgamations.
Q: Tell us about your goals for next year.
A: We need to continue to deliver on some of the opportunities that have been presented with funding, such as Stingray Creek bridge, trying to capitalise on the memorandum of understanding for the laboratory, and very importantly, continue down the path of connecting better with the community through improving efficiency within council operations in dealing with businesses and constituents.
Q: We are amid the peak tourist season.
How would you like tourists to remember their Port Macquarie experience?
A: There is a strong vibe around town at the moment and I think we are in for a busy tourist season.
I think if tourists can take away the feeling this is a beautiful natural environment with friendly, considerate locals, that will attract repeat visits and good word of mouth.
We are not the Gold Coast razzle dazzle and we are not a quaint, sleepy fishing village.
I think this is a family friendly great holiday destination that has something for everyone.