In our final story about the contenders to be Lismore’s next mayor, the shire’s longest-serving councillor Vanessa Ekins talks about her connections with the area, and hopes for Lismore’s future.
Cr Ekins has been a councillor for sixteen years. Her motivation to get into local government began when she lived in South Lismore, near a fuel dump and an asphalt plant, and a primary school.
‘The chemical odours really infiltrated everyone’s houses there,’ she remembers, ‘and the school had classrooms closed, so I started lobbying council about it, because I knew under the clean air act they weren’t supposed to omit odours.
‘So that started a whole process where they’d have to send an authorised officer to determine that there was in fact an odour, then they’d have to do a report to see how they could address the odours, and years went by, but finally a report was presented to council on the matter and I went and sat in the public gallery to see the report being debated.
‘It was amazing, some of the other issues there, I was sitting between people who were worried about manure on one property, and the neighbours were upset about the flies, and I was sitting between them. They started shouting at each other, and I went wow, this is amazing, this happens every Tuesday night!’
An education in the public gallery
Loving the drama of local government, Cr Ekins started going regularly, to see what issues were discussed.
She remembers it being very diverse. ‘But I noticed that most of the councillors making decisions, about important things like putting roads like koala corridors, were men in their seventies and eighties.
‘And some of them were asleep, a lot of them were uninformed, and I just thought this is crazy! Why are these people making important decisions on behalf of us?’
One of the big debates at the time was about Lismore Lake.
‘Significant birds were there and we wanted to keep it as a habitat. So I thought, I could sit there and do that, and that would be a better outcome for our community; someone who was actually paying attention and who was awake, and who was a different demographic.
‘So I found out who was there, and what to do, and I joined the Greens,’ said Cr Ekins.
Although her first election attempt was unsuccessful, Vanessa Ekins went to all the council meetings during the next four years, ‘so I became very familiar with the issues and the personalities, meeting processes.
‘I urge anyone who’s interested in local government, go to meetings, beause that’s how you learn about what’s happening,’ she said.
After three years of this, Cr Ekins found herself sitting next to Jenny Dowell in the public gallery. ‘We’d met on polling booths. It was like, oh yeah, what are you doing here?’
More than roads, rates and rubbish
Vanessa Ekins told Echonetdaily, ‘Local government’s so important, because it’s not just maintaining roads, although we have a massive road network, and it’s the majority of our budget and staff, to maintain our road network, that’s a huge impost, but there are also other things like libraries, swimming pools, sporting ovals, parks.
‘We now have a biodiversity levy, so we have an amount of money every year that we can spend on the natural environment,’ she said.
‘I found every year we were scrabbling for a few thousand dollars to spend on environmental projects.
‘Every time we asked the community, they said it was a major priority, and really important to them, and yet we had no budget, and people would ask, “can we just have a few thousand dollars to do some planting here on the riverbank?”
‘So I went through a twelve year process where we identified that we needed to act on protecting our natural environment; it was council’s role, because council had some of that land, and how do we go about doing that? So now we have the environmental levy.
‘We rate people a small amount each year because people say it’s important to them, about $25, and we have $500,000 every year that we spend on environmental projects as a council.
‘It took twelve years to achieve that!’
Ready for the mayoral robes?
Echonetdaily asked if sixteen years experience meant Vanessa Ekins was the best qualified councillor to be mayor?
‘Well, I think so!’ she said. ‘I have to say that I’m very experienced, and I’m also really responsible. I go to all the site inspections, all the workshops, I read all the documentation.’
Cr Ekins is also known for her entertaining social media updates about what she gets up to on council. ‘I think it’s really important to say we’re out at this site looking at this situation, what do you think? And to try and demystify what councillors do.’
She also somehow maintains a rounded existence outside local government, making time for the beach and pool, doing a show on community radio, and working as a casual teacher.
‘It’s just when they call me at 6.30 in the morning, I can either go in or not,’ she said. ‘That would fit quite well around the mayoral role. I’ve got the time.’
One of Vanessa Ekins’ other great passions is flying foxes. ‘I love the bats,’ she said.
‘We were talking about redeveloping Lismore Park, and one of the staff was saying we could have laser lights for people to come and look at every night.
‘And I said, hang on, we’ve got something that happens here every night that is amazing, and it’s the bat fly-out, and if you go and watch that happen it’s incredible. There’s just thousands of them. That’s our iconic thing, and people could come down with the picnic blankets and watch the bats fly out. It’s something else, and I love it.
‘They’re our major pollinators,’ she continued, ‘they’re a keystone species, so if the bats go – and they’re being decimated everywhere because their habitat’s being lost in rural areas, and people start building houses near them and then complain, and move them on – so they’re declining in number.
‘It’s a real tragedy, because they pollinate most of our rainforest trees, which flower at night. If we lose the bats, we’re going to lose our rainforest. If we lose our rainforest, we’re going to lose our rainfall. So that’s terrible, but I think they’re just gorgeous!’
Love for Lismore
Vanessa Ekins grew up in Brisbane. ‘I finished my schooling there, and my boyfriend lived down here, so I moved down here in 1993, and we started a family, and I’m still here!
‘My kids were born here, they went to school here,’ she said.
With Lismore traditionally drawing new settlers with the environment as a major priority, Cr Ekins says the appeal of the area is widening.
‘Now it’s people from the LGBTQI community, who come here for Tropical Fruits, and realise what a great place this is.
”That’s another reason I’d like to run for mayor, because I love living here, and I think we don’t sell that story well enough, even to people in our own community – how great this place is!
‘We’re a centre for education, we’ve got five high schools, a university and an excellent TAFE college. We’ve got the courts and we’re the centre for legal matters, and medical matters. We also have a thriving culture and arts industry, and the produce.
‘We’ve got five markets every week, and the small farmers’ markets went all the way through COVID, so we’ve got excellent farming. It’s been part of our European history, and will be part of our future, I really believe we should be progressing that more.
‘That’s one of my concerns, I don’t want to see our urban areas sprawl into our precious farmland. We need to keep that because we’ve got to produce food.’
What about North Lismore Plateau?
Vanessa Ekins says she’s concerned about the controversial development for a number of reasons.
‘When we started talking about it. I was hoping it could be a real standalone community, with its own water supplies and sewerage systems, and it would rejuvenate the North Lismore area, downtown, but as the planning for it went on it looked like just another suburb,’ she said.
‘If you see what’s happening down there now, with the erosion, it’s shocking. Right at the bottom where water collects, I think that’s a nightmare waiting to happen, and that’s another thing we really need to plan for.
‘The reason we’re here is we love it. That’s why we live here, so how do we protect what we like, and keep that, and still cater for what’s coming?’
Paying the bills
Echonetdaily asked about Lismore’s financial problem with the rates base. Don’t you somehow need to get more money coming in?
‘The rates I don’t think do it,’ said Cr Ekins. ‘The rates pay our staff wages. And we know that new development doesn’t cover the cost of that development. Rates don’t meet the expenses associated with people’s water, sewer and road network, and all the pressures associated with those.
‘So we need some other form of income. What is that? I don’t know, but I do know we have 35,000 motor vehicles that drive into Lismore every day, and those people work here,’ she said.
‘They work at our hospital, they work at universities and newspapers, at council chambers, and at the end of the day those 35,000 people drive out of Lismore again.
‘They are our working tourists, so what can we do to get the people who commute from Pottsville to work at the hospital, to stay in town, buy lunch and shop in town, go to the theatre before they go home?
‘That’s a big ask, but it’s a staggering figure. Personally I’d like to charge a road tax, to contribute to our community, but we cannot do that, only the state government can do that.’
What are the biggest challenges, going forward, for Lismore?
Cr Ekins said, ‘One of the big issues is water, obviously, and I’m really pleased we’ve moved away from the Dunoon Dam.
‘When I was first at Rous County Council as Lismore’s representative, in 2010, they were talking about doing the Dunoon Dam.
‘I managed to widen the scope of that and go, how about we look at all the other options?
‘And that’s what they did, there was support in the chamber to do that, and we started the Future Water Strategy where we went through a two year process, with volunteers from the community who were selected to be educated about all of the options.
‘They went through and identified recycled water, rainwater tanks, demand management and a bit of groundwater use; the very same options that we are coming up with ten years later.’
So why does the dam keep being pushed forward as a solution?
Cr Ekins said, ‘Dams are beautiful, people like dams. It’s a big body of water, you can go and look at them, it gives people a weird sense of security, but they’re a massive investment, you’re talking $200m plus, and I’d like to think we could do better things with that money, and that’s even aside from the impact on Aboriginal cultural heritage and biodiversity.’
The issue is due to be debated again at the next Rous County Council meeting, later this month, with one more vote on the Dunoon Dam proposal.
‘I hope it doesn’t change,’ said Cr Ekins, ‘because I really want our staff there to focus on demand management, which we’ve never funded adequately. Not all homes in this area have rainwater tanks, and I really think recycled water is the way of the future, because at the moment it’s treated as waste, and we need to reuse that.
‘People don’t like the idea of drinking pee water, but when you look at it, only two percent of household water is used for drinking and cooking. Two percent! The rest of it we flush down the toilets.
‘At the moment we’re flushing our beautiful Rocky Creek Dam water down the toilet, we’re washing our clothes with it, and it’s going into our sewers, and becoming waste,’ she said.
‘I feel like we’re getting some change with our water use, and really thinking about how we use water, and not just accepting that we turn a tap on and we can use it for everything.
‘We really need to be strategic and careful about how we do that, because our rainfall’s going to be intermittent, and we need to have other sources.
‘That’s why I really love rainwater tanks, because if everyone was using tanks for their toilets and laundries, that means when a dry period comes and tanks are lower, we’ve still got a dam, we haven’t sucked our dam dry, so the existing dam becomes our emergency supply.’
What about flooding?
Cr Ekins said, ‘This is another thing we need to take a new view of. I’m on the floodplain committee as well as Rous, so water’s a very important thing for me, I’ve still got wet hair from swimming this morning!
‘For twenty years or more, the floodplain committee has been looking at what can we do to stop water going into shops in town. There’s a total focus on the CBD.
‘However we know now, and research is gathering heavily overseas and in Australia, that if we address water catchment in the upper catchment, it slows flood levels and velocities before it hits the CBD,’ she said.
‘That means we need to do a whole lot of things we’re calling nature-based solutions, things like planting riverways so banks don’t erode and there’s more channel, you capture water in the upper catchment with small structures; the idea is to hold water back when it falls, so it doesn’t just rush down the channel and hit a concrete wall.
‘At the moment there’s a massive issue with sediment, it’s huge, but there’s resistance to planting the riverbanks because people like their cattle to access the riverbanks, which of course contributes to erosion and sedimentation. But you can provide off-stream watering.
‘We all value our natural environment, we should all contribute towards the costs of doing that, and council has its rural landholder initiative, where we’re actually going out to those farmers and going, look, we’ll provide off-stream water for your stock, shade for your stock, we just need to plant this riverbank and exclude the stock from the riverbank.’
Solutions all around us
Cr Vanessa Ekins said, ‘There’s so many solutions and things we can do, and what I’m really excited about with these things is, it’s a great investment opportunity, and it’s project-based, it’s an employment generator.
‘The nurseries did really well here over COVID, people just wanted to plant trees and get into their gardens, so there’s a lot of skill that we’ve got in that area, and if we had a huge amount of investment – we’d have to lobby the government for that – we could get those teams of people out into the upper catchment, planting and doing those projects.
‘That comes back to farmland as well. Another thing I’m interested in is the re-hydration of the landscape, because some of those farms are so bare and dry. We’ve got some grant funding to do some natural sequence trials on different farms out here.
‘I just feel really positive about our future here, especially in our agriculture, we’re so rich and fertile,’ she said
Beyond the Lismore area though, is Cr Ekins concerned that many people are not hearing the positive stories? They hear about councillors leaving early and the financial black hole and the negativity. What you’re describing sounds like a very different Lismore.
‘This is one thing we don’t do,’ said Cr Ekins, ‘we don’t tell that story well, and people get attracted to the negativeness, so how do we go out and tell the positive story about all the great stuff we’re doing?
‘I’m on more than five committees, and these are committees that work really hard; Aboriginal advisory committees and committees that look at all sorts of other things. There’s really good work that’s being done, but we’re just not telling that story.’
Cr Ekins said, ‘The wheels of government creak. So you’ve got to be persistent!
‘You’ve also got to be positive about the future. I just think, I love living here. People come here and are really attracted to this place.
‘There’s a bit of negativity about Lismore, on social media and it’s like, c’mon folks, get out and go to the art gallery, go to a workshop, go down to Landcare and plant some trees.’
Vanessa Ekins remembers, ‘I had a time in intensive care a few years back, I was in hospital for five weeks, and I really thought, what’s important to me? Getting my teaching qualification was important, and spending time with my children, and having more fun.’
Doesn’t it getting exhausting though, all the council work?
‘Yes it’s stressful waiting to see how decisions will go, but it’s important to remember all those people on council give up huge amounts of their time, so they’re there for a reason, and that is they want a good outcome for their community. We all want the best for our community,’ said Cr Ekins.
‘How we get there is different, and that’s what we have to negotiate in that room. And most of our decisions are unanimous!
‘Moving forward, I don’t think the council is going to be dysfunctional, we’ll make it work. We all know that we’ve got a short timeframe. We’ve got about seven months of council, and then there’ll be another election, and that will be a whole new council. It will be up to that council to find their feet and identify what their priorities are.’
Councillors more united than divided
Cr Ekins said, ‘At the beginning of this term we had a little workshop and identified that we all wanted the same things; a strong farming sector, our university to do well, our hospital and medical facilities to thrive, affordable housing for our community; we wanted our riverbanks healthy, we all wanted cycle paths, we all wanted the same things!
‘And yet we weren’t assisted in any way to implement that vision. There was no thought given to it, and we just went into a situation where we were reacting to staff reports, and all our time and energy was spent just dealing with the business of council.
‘What I’d really like to see the next council do, and hopefully they’ll have some senior management to help them do that, is to turn a vision into a strategy.
‘How do you do that? There must be skills in that area. There must be a process you can go through, and I think that’s really important,’ she said.
‘And the same for the community. We ask them to imagine Lismore and come up with strategic plans and they come up with all this great stuff, and then we adopt the plan, but how do we implement that vision? That’s the gap that I want us to address, I don’t think we can do it in the next seven months, but it’s really important.’
Why Vanessa Ekins for mayor?
‘I understand the role of council,’ she said, ‘I’ve represented council on many things; Rotary, Lions events, at SCU, at farmers’ forums, so I’m used to representing council, and I think I know the community as well.
‘I’ve taught in every high school here. I’ve gone to the TAFE, I’ve gone to the university, I use the facilities, do my laps, go to the gallery, I go to the functions. I get out and participate.’
She said she was struck by how well the local businesses in the CBD dealt with COVID, particularly the cafes.
Echonetdaily noted Lismore’s skill at dealing with emergencies; floods and fires and pandemic, the CSG threat.
‘Yes, people are ready to pitch in and have a go,’ said Vanessa Ekins.
But not so good out of a crisis? ‘Yes that’s the challenge, the mundanity of every day life,’ mused Cr Ekins. ‘How do we cope with that?’
The decision about Lismore’s next mayor will be decided in council’s meeting tonight.
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