In the first of a series about those who are putting their hats in the ring to be the next mayor of Lismore, Cr Darlene Cook talks about the issues close to her heart, for the city at the heart of the Northern Rivers.
Starting out in Sydney, Cr Cook has lived locally for nearly forty years, having moved up from Grafton to manage a macadamia nursery. She now lives in Dorroughby.
‘This area’s been really good to me,’ she said. ‘It’s embraced me as an out lesbian woman, it’s been very supportive.’
Cr Cook has been interested in local government since her teens, when she was deputy mayor on her local youth council. Since then her passion hasn’t wavered.
‘It’s the biggest gig in town,’ she said. ‘The breadth of activities and industries that councils are involved in is something a lot of people don’t really appreciate.’
Cr Cook spent a year as Deputy Mayor of Lismore, with Cr Neil Marks currently both Deputy Mayor and Acting Mayor since the departure of Cr Isaac Smith.
Lismore Council has also lost Crs Greg Bennett and Gianpiero Battista this term, which has been longer than usual due to COVID.
This week Cr Cook said, ‘I made the decision in 2016 that I would put a full-time commitment into council, rather than part-time or just being a Tuesday night councillor.
‘This community deserves a full-time mayor. It needs someone who is available to get out there, meet people, talk to business people, engage with people from all walks of life. We need somebody out there full-time,’ she said.
‘That’s the commitment I made in 2016, when I ran for council, and also to be a voice for everybody outside the Lismore/Goonellabah urban conglomerate. Myself and Greg Bennett were the only two rural councillors.’
Cr Darlene Cook also represents Lismore on the Rous County Council, where she has recently taken a public stance opposing the Dunoon Dam.
A rescission motion is going to be brought forward at the next Rous meeting by Ballina’s Cr Sharon Cadwallader, but this doesn’t appear to have the support needed to change the decision.
Cr Cook told Echonetdaily, ‘I was very conflicted about it, because I’ve always been a supporter of dams, and economically it’s the best option, it really is, however in this case we do have to take into consideration the Big Scrub that’s remaining there, especially with its unusual sandstone platform, and there’s also the indigenous heritage.
‘White people can’t just keep trashing things; consulting with First Nations people, hearing them say “please don’t do this”, and then ignoring them. We can’t do it.’
Cr Cook says she’s hoping the discussion about the future of water in the Northern Rivers remains positive. ‘Remember Rous is dealing with a wide demographic with a lot of different opinions.
‘There’s some people saying why wasn’t the dam built thirty years ago? In Casino they need the water, that’s where it comes from, whereas Ballina and Byron don’t have the space to put in major infrastructure, so a lot of smaller treatment plants throughout the area associated with stormwater and wastewater collection is probably the way to go.
‘We can’t just keep letting water run away. If we’ve got wastewater just sitting there, going into wetlands or out into the river or into the sea, we should be using it.’
What about floods?
Darlene Cook has a strong interest in Lismore’s perennial issue. ‘The most recent floodplain risk management report which came out included six options, all of which worsened the problem for North Lismore and to a certain extent South Lismore, while protecting the CBD,’ she said.
‘I think we need to make a decision about this. Is protecting our CBD at all costs the way we want to go? With the thousands of people who live in north and south Lismore being adversely affected?
‘We’ve got to look at the river as a holistic thing, and that includes up the river, in the catchment, where there’s macadamia plantations that are so intensively cropped they’ve now got no surface grass cover.
‘So every time it rains – and I live next to one of the worst offenders – all their topsoil’s just going down the river.’
Cr Cook says there needs to be a focus on revegetating the creeks. ‘We’ve got to slow down the water up in the headwaters and try to plant as much as we can up there. The more logging we do associated with the river, the more damage we do to the creeks, the faster the water keeps coming down.
‘It’s not just the run-off of the soil, it’s the speed and intensity of the water that then comes down, and the conjunction of major systems is right in the heart of Lismore.’
If she becomes mayor, Cr Cook said looking for a more sensible response to flooding would be one of her major issues.
‘Definitely, and I’m working with Rous on this too, because they’re going to be one of the major players with their mandate for the whole river system, looking out for the health of the river and trying to do things for flood management.’
Darlene Cook told Echonetdaily, ‘In terms of Lismore, the financial situation with the council is one of the most important issues. We went through a bad patch where we’d dropped the ball, in previous councils, on our governance, the oversight of our finances and our long term financial plans – we dropped the ball entirely.
‘So when this council came in, in 2016, we really had no idea of the state of the finances. When new GM Shelley [Oldham] came in, we charged her to find out what’s wrong. We all had this feeling there’s something not right.’
So was it a problem with management? ‘We take the advice of the staff, they’re professionals, but if they don’t do the right thing, or if the oversight of their middle management isn’t up to scratch, that’s where all the problems seem to lie.’
Cr Cook says since those times ‘middle management has completely changed’ and Lismore Council is turning itself around.
‘They’ve restructured entirely how they do their budgets, to zero based budgeting,’ she said. ‘They no longer take last year’s budget and just add a bit of CPI [Cost Performance Index] to it and say she’ll be right. They actually go down to square one. You have to account for everything in your budget. And that’s shown some amazing savings.
‘Finally we’re getting a really good picture of some of our business units, for example the quarry or GSAC [Goonellabah Sports and Aquatic Centre].’
What about the pools?
Cr Cook says council needs to decide ‘are we providing services to the community, or are we running a business that’s got to make a profit?’
She told Echonetdaily that Lismore Memorial Baths is ‘essential’ and has proved its worth, but GSAC is losing money because it was originally paid for with loans instead of grants, and became much bigger than was originally planned.
‘You can cope with something that’s losing $100,000 a year, you can make that up somewhere else in your business unit, but when you’re losing a million a year in repayments of loans, it’s unviable,’ said Cr Cook.
‘So we actually voted to close it, and perhaps sell it if there was an interested party out there. Then COVID hit, so that fell down.
‘But the feedback we got from the community when COVID restrictions were lifted, begging us to reopen it – people love GSAC.’ she said.
‘They love the facilities there, there’s places for adults and places for kids, there’s places to play netball and a skate park, and the community just loves it.
‘So again you’re got to weigh up, a facility and service that is loved, or an economic unit? It’s a really difficult decision.’
Lismore Shire is famous for the poor state of its roads, of which there are 1200 kilometres in a high rainfall area with lots of villages.
‘And there’s another problem that’s unique to Lismore – for example not an issue in Richmond Valley – and that is the underground springs system,’ said Cr Cook.
‘It doesn’t matter how deep you dig your foundations, eventually you’ll end up with potholes because of the amount of sub-surface water. It’s all around the countryside up here.
‘Also, a lot of the roads were originally designed and built for much lighter traffic; lower numbers and lower weights. Have a look at the trucks; all that heavy transport used to be on trains. Now the trucks are getting bigger and heavier.’
Despite the increasing maintenance costs, Cr Cook said ‘the revenue base has been really static for a long time.’
One of council’s attempts to deal with that problem, the major North Lismore Plateau development, has become mired in legal and environmental problems.
‘The runoff is the big issue,’ said Cr Cook. ‘We’ve got to be very very careful. I’ve looked at some of the engineering plans and they’re really trying to work out how they can retain as much water on the hill as possible and slow it down with reed beds and damlets and so on.’
The DA for stage one, on the lowest ground, is currently before council.
If she becomes mayor, Cr Darlene Cook would like to play a conciliatory role between opposing factions in what is a very diverse council, reflecting a diverse community. ‘There’s been a lot of conflict in the last four years, there’s been a lot of personality clashes,’ she said.
‘Some people have not been able to find resolution to those difficulties. I think all of us are hoping that with a change of leadership, we can start with a brand new page, and put that behind us.
‘I work well with [Cr] Nancy [Zambelli-Casson]. We don’t see eye to eye on a lot of things, but we have lengthy conversations.’
‘There are still people out there who are willing to unite across the political divide,’ she said. ‘I’m able to work well with other councillors regardless of their affiliation.’
Darlene Cook says former mayor Jenny Dowell is a great resource. ‘If there’s an issue coming up and I don’t know how to handle it, I can ask her, from your experience, how would you handle this? How would you navigate your way through that issue?’
Beyond council, Cr Cook says she has good working relationships with other political figures in the area, such as Janelle Saffin and Kevin Hogan.
‘I’ve known Kevin for quite a number of years. I’ve got a lot of respect for him. I think he does a great job. He probably could advocate a little bit stronger for this community.
‘For example if you look at the 2017 flood, we fought and fought to get money out of the government for disaster relief. If you have a look at Townsville’s flood, they got handed a cheque for $40-50 million the next day and were told to account for it as they cleaned up.’
She acknowledges that with the recent, smaller flood, government acted faster. ‘That was a combination of council and Janelle also putting in to Kevin, and Kevin getting the federal government and the premier in as fast as possible,’ she said.
‘I think they realised we were suffering and here we had a disaster on top of it.’
Cr Cook sympathises with Lismore CBD businesses who are struggling in the face of multiple challenges, voting to freeze rates.
‘We gave them a 20% cut initially because of the disparity of the rating structure, the fact that their rates kept escalating in a tiny area where you can’t expand or grow, whereas the rest of the business sector, the pool that they were paying had more and more people paying into it, so the individual rate in that pool kept lowering, as the CBD kept going up.
‘So we cut their rates by 20%. It was partially COVID and partially recognition of the floods, all the economic problems they’d suffered in the last 4-5 years. The disparity is not fair,’ she said.
‘Once upon a time the CBD was the premier shopping precinct, so they paid a premium for that, they’re not any more. There are other shopping precincts. But we love our CBD.’
Tourism and the future of the Lismore region
Cr Cook said, ‘One of our big tourist drawcards is that people can see remnants of the original Big Scrub. What’s left of it is vitally important for eco-tourism. These trees have got to be preserved.’
In terms of the arts, she said, ‘We have one of the largest creative art communities in Australia. I’d like to see more space, more opportunities to showcase themselves, perhaps some of the empty shops in the CBD could be re-opened as small galleries?
‘The artworks in our back alleys, they’re opening up those alleys and making them user-friendly, beautiful. It’s wonderful to walk down there, and our regional gallery’s just so important too,’ she said.
‘You cannot live on roads, rates and rubbish,’ said Cr Cook.
‘We need our arts, we need our culture, we need to support NORPA, who are bringing so much great entertainment from all across Australia to Lismore, making us a heartland for artistic pursuit and artistic creations. That and the regional gallery, it’s a wonderful showcase for us all.’
Cr Cook has been in Lismore long enough to see it transform from a quiet, rural agricultural area to a university town and a far more cosmopolitan community. ‘That’s been added to by the Aquarius Festival, and the sea-changers and tree-changers who came, and there’s another wave of new arrivals now since COVID,’ she said.
While she can see pluses and minuses to this transformation, Cr Cook said, ‘I think this area’s going to be terrific. We’ll never be as pricey and intense as the coast, because there are so many people who want that coast, but we’re going to be a lot more affordable.’
She acknowledges that despite this, Lismore is still seeing ‘major problems’ with affordable housing and social housing.
‘We’ve had a grant structure to assist people getting into affordable housing for several years, but that’s sitting in limbo to such an extent that council itself is now going to do an affordable housing project, with that money we got from the Building Better Regional Communities Fund, several years ago.’
Until recently, Lismore Council was becoming a leader in renewable energy, what’s happening now?
‘We’ve had to put that on the back burner for a bit due to our finances,’ explained Cr Cook. ‘We were hoping to be 100% reliant on renewables by 2023, I don’t think we’re going to achieve that. But we do have an exciting project coming up at McKees Hill.
‘AGL are going to build a big storage battery facility there. That’s a huge project and they’re coming to Lismore,’ said Cr Cook.
The decision about who will be Lismore’s next mayor will be made at the February meeting. The mayor has to be nominated and elected by fellow councillors.
Echonetdaily will be featuring other likely candidates over coming weeks.
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