In the latest story in our series about the candidates to be Lismore’s next mayor, current Deputy Mayor and Acting Mayor Neil Marks talks about his vision for the regional city.
After 33 years working in radio, Cr Marks made the switch to the motorcycle business a few years ago.
He originally came to the Northern Rivers from Victoria in 1990. ‘I fell in love with the area, fell in love with the women of the area, married a couple, had kids and family and all the rest of it.’
Motorcycles are one of his passions, although he’s had a couple of nasty accidents.
‘In 2017 I literally landed on my head, out the back of Toowoomba, lost a spleen, damaged a few other internal organs and fun stuff like that, but I got through it,’ he said. ‘It’s amazing what your body can live without!’
How did council start for you?
Cr Marks told Echonetdaily he’d always been interested in politics.
‘I was friends with Merv King who was the mayor here quite some years ago now, and I ummed and ahhed about joining his ticket for his last run. I didn’t, but then he tapped me on the shoulder and said “you need to go this time,” so I went yep, and got myself organised. That was thirteen years ago,’ he remembered.
Lismore Council is known for being a bit tumultuous. Is it getting more so?
‘Lismore is an interesting place because it has so many divergent people,’ said Cr Marks.
‘It was one of the joys of moving here. I came from a very conservative place, so when I arrived I walked around the streets going how does all this work?
‘in conservative central Victoria you either were a blue collar worker, or you had more money than you knew what to do with. There was a vast difference between the two. Here, there’s much more of a mix, that’s why I fell in love with the place.’
Cr Marks said council reflects the diversity of the community.
‘You’ve got people who are from very different backgrounds throughout the area, lots of different beliefs, lots of different political beliefs, and in general terms most of it can work. We don’t often come up with the three humped camel,’ he said.
Cr Marks said that while diversity is a strength, it can also be frustrating.
‘It can be all of that. But we represent everyone. I want to represent all the people in the community, and that’s how I deal with the public. It doesn’t matter if I agree with what you’re asking, I will certainly try to do what I can to get answers.’
A challenging period for local government
The last term of Lismore Council has seen three councillors leave, including most recently Mayor Isaac Smith, which has seen Neil Marks take on more responsibility.
‘Yes I’ve been deputy mayor since September, and then Isaac started to slide out and left more and more for me to do.
‘He then took extended leave to the end of December and extended that further, once he decided he was going to resign, so technically I’ve been acting mayor since the end of September.’
Cr Marks says it has been a challenge balancing the increasing demands of council with his work and family commitments, but one he’s happy to accept. ‘Look, it’s busy. There’s no question about that, but I’ve always been a good time manager, and people will say, “Neil you send me emails at 4am,” yes I do.
‘If I’m available I will do things immediately,’ he said.
‘If I have to take messages and suddenly my lunchtime becomes a callback period, straight after work when I jump in the car I see important messages I need to get back to, it’s hands-free all the way home so I can talk to different people.
‘You just do what you can to clear out that urgency. I’m lucky I’ve got a family who understand, and they know they can find me in the back office most nights,’ he said.
Neil Marks has one child still living at home and three adult children, ‘so I’ve only got one that I disappoint on a regular basis!’
What are the big issues for Lismore, going forward?
Number one for Cr Marks is, ‘to really maintain our capacity as a regional city. We are the larger population base at this stage; we have all the facilities such as the hospital and university and law courts. That gives us the edge as a regional city.
‘We also have wonderful sporting facilities, there’s no one else in the area who’s got what we have. So we need to maintain these things, because that’s our difference. We don’t have beaches, but we do have all these other things.
He said, ‘We need to concentrate on the people that we attract; families, and a lot of tree-changers at the moment. We need to keep in mind all the people coming here that are new, and what they expect and what they experience.
‘When they move here it should become a happy change, and with that brings job opportunities, so we need to be knocking on the doors and making sure businesses are seeing the opportunities, if they’ve been here for a while.’
Cr Marks says it’s also about knocking on the doors of ‘bigger businesses, and government offices, and saying “Hey, we’re here, we’re ready for you.” We need to be very much proactive in that space.’
Council can help, but no endless bucket of money
Neil Marks told Echonetdaily that council can play a role in helping business survive challenges such as floods and COVID-19.
‘Council can play lots and lots of roles,’ he said. ‘Unfortunately it doesn’t have the endless bucket of money that a lot of people seem to think it has. The more you do in one area, the less you do in another area, so one of the tricks of being on council is to keep that balance.’
Cr Marks says it’s clear to people from outside the area that the Lismore region is ready for big things, but long-time locals ‘don’t necessarily see the same potential. So we need to invest in that confidence-building side of things,’ he said.
‘There is opportunity here. You can give it a crack. People see empty shops and go, “that shows it’s no good for business.” Well, you talk to the people who’ve moved into those shops, and they’re finding the business can be really really good. You’ve just got to take that plunge.’
Council coming out of the red
Neil Marks said Lismore Council has set a lot of positive changes in process in recent years after the financial hole discovered by the new general manager, but challenges remain.
‘We don’t have a lot of money, so we have to be very careful what we do and how we stimulate,’ he said.
‘Is it better to do some of the basic jobs, or pull back a bit there and put money into economic development? What is going to bring greater benefit to the town? What’s going to to be the greatest bang for buck?’
Cr Marks said he’s happy with the progress of the reformation program under GM Shelley Oldham.
‘That’s about making sure we’re best practice and in some cases setting best practice for councils, because the GM has come from other areas. But we can’t be continually focused internally, we also need to focus externally, on the necessities of the community.’
What about floods?
‘Lismore floods, we’re never going to get away from that,’ said Cr Marks. ‘If you build the wall bigger, it’s just going to push the water somewhere else. Water is the issue, and we get plenty of it, too much at times.
‘We need to be prepared and make sure the people who live in the floodplains don’t get complacent and start storing too much stuff under their house,’ he said.
‘Sometimes we go quite a while without having issues, and people move in, don’t know the risk, business move into premises and start building with products that aren’t going to survive, and this is where the issue comes. But Lismore’s always going to flood at some stage.’
Cr Marks can see the benefits of planting upstream and other modern flood mitigation efforts, but wonders if this is going to bring solutions fast enough.
‘Is it going to drop an inch or ten inches? This is where the hydrologists of the world come in. I think [the solution is] probably going to be a bit of everything, long term is important but for people who live here if we can do things such as the flood channels and the rest of it around the town, and more levee work if that’s needed, that will give is the immediate security.
‘Things like the channel off the back of Bunnings, that has an immediate effect. Yes it got water faster away from us and it became someone else’s problem, but it did speed up the flow and drop the effect of the flood here.’
On the issue of the fraught relationships between the different councillors at Lismore in the last term, Neil Marks told Echonetdaily, ‘I made it a part of my mission when I became deputy mayor to recognise the fact that we weren’t talking, we don’t have that communication built in.
‘There is tension within the room at the best of times. So I’ve taken the time to speak to the majority of councillors. It’s what human beings should do – communicate.
‘I came from a background in the communication industry, and that’s what it’s all about. If we can simplify the communication, understand where we’re coming from, we’re not always going to agree, but it shouldn’t be taken personally, it should just be healthy community debate,’ he said.
As acting mayor, his attitude has been, ‘Everyone gets a chance to talk here. We get our five minutes of fame on whatever subject you want to talk on, that’s something we should have. If you want to say something after that, you put your hand up and you have that debate.
‘It shouldn’t be an argument, people shouldn’t get belittled or berated.’
Cr Marks is well familiar with Lismore’s perennial issue, from more than one perspective, including customers coming into the motorcycle shop and needing new rims.
‘The fact is we have a backlog in roads. We’ve recognised that backlog. A lot of other councils have similar conditions in roads but don’t financially recognise what it will cost to get it back.
‘We are constantly talking to state and federal government to say this is beyond the realms of what any council can do. There was a report many years ago that looked at all councils in NSW, and they said the infrastructure and maintenance was beyond what the councils could cover through rates,’ he said.
‘So we’ve looked to government grants, because that level of government has the ability to raise tax. So we put our hand up as often as we can, we speak loudly as often as we can to get that money.
‘It’s always going to be a hard effort. A lot of our roads are literally built on swamp lands. We’ve got 900 kilometres of bitumen roads alone, literally the distance to Sydney, within our LGA. So there’s a lot to look after,’ said Cr Marks.
‘It was interesting at our Australia Day ceremony, at the welcome the Aboriginal elder spoke about building on the flood plain. He said “We weren’t that stupid!”
‘It’s a swamp, with shifting grounds and all those sorts of things. We pay that punishment with our roads.
‘I would obviously love to see it better, I have a personal interest in that as a motorbike rider. We will always try to do our best, and the more money we can get, the more work we can do,’ he said.
Jobs and growth?
Cr Marks told Echonetdaily, ‘Last night I read a document released by the NSW State Government on NSW regional areas and growth areas. The Northern Rivers is expected to be a growth area.
‘We as councils need to talking to our state government and our federal government about what we want to do, and what we see as our best step forward, and make sure that they know it,’ he said.
‘We need to be better at lobbying than we have been in the past. That’s certainly what I know, and I’ve spent my time as deputy and acting mayor talking to our state and federal politicians. It’s the personal contacts I had in that realm to get that message across. It’s one of the things that we all need to do.
‘Sometimes we can all become a little self-focused. We need to look out, see what the community wants, and look further down the track to what the state government is trying to achieve.’
Decentralisation is the future
Neil Marks said, ‘One of the good things about COVID-19 is people have realised they can work from home. So decentralisation from a government point of view becomes a simpler thing to do.
‘We know we’ve had an influx of people moving to the area because they want to get out of Sydney or Brisbane or Melbourne, and they want to work from home,’ he said.
‘It’s not necessarily council’s core business, but we need to make sure that Telstra and the NBN people are always aware of our expanding needs and requirements, we need to make sure that we lobby them, and the state and federal governments to get the best yields that we can.’
Sometimes it seems like Lismore is the poor relation in the Northern Rivers, although it is literally the heart. Does Lismore need to claim its place?
‘Yes, as I said earlier, we are the regional centre, and the largest single spot with all those facilities in it, that make us a regional city,’ said Cr Marks.
‘We need to yell that from the tallest building we can find, and make sure that as the leading local government area we can continue to grow, and continue to provide services for the locals, and for the region.’
The decision about who will be the next mayor of Lismore will be made by ballot at Lismore City Council’s meeting on Tuesday night. An increasing number of candidates are putting their hats into the ring, so the contest will be one to watch.
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In the latest in our series about the candidates to be Lismore's next mayor, current Deputy Mayor and Acting Mayor Neil Marks talks about his vision for Lismore.