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December 2, 2021

Cr Darlene Cook: ‘working to restore accountability and trust in our Council’

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The 2021 NSW Local Government elections will be held on Saturday, 04 December, 2021. Candidates have until noon on Wednesday, November 3 to register with the NSW Electoral Commission.

The Echo is inviting all of the Lismore mayoral candidates to a photoshoot and to answer the same 20 questions.

Lismore Councillor Darlene Cook. Photo Tree Faerie.

Cr Darlene Cook has served as a Lismore Councillor since 2016 and is a member of the Country Labor Party.

1. What are your intentions and hopes for the December election and beyond?

I will support our new General Manager, staff and councillors to continue the program to improve council processes and business operations, working towards a more financially sustainable future. As Mayor, I would lead the way in implementing climate resilience initiatives, affordable housing strategies, attracting investment and employment opportunities that will ensure Lismore is the premier regional city on the north coast.

2. What do you see as the biggest challenges for the Lismore LGA going forward?

After the devastation of floods, fire and pandemic impacting our communities and businesses over the past five years, Council’s leadership is vital in assisting our communities plan and implement strategies for resilience to climate change impacts. Our business sector needs economic stimulus and new industries driven by council-led initiatives to attract investment and new jobs.

The COVID-19 pandemic is accelerating the movement of people out of the cities and into the regions.  This is Lismore’s time to shine – but we need to be prepared, and we need to have places for these people to live. We already have a housing and homelessness crisis needing a major injection of funding for affordable and social housing – council can be pivotal in lobbying the government to bring this investment to Lismore. That also means Council taking a more constructive and imaginative approach to residential development, and providing a greater mix of housing options – including affordable housing, shop-top apartments and medium density.

But the biggest challenge, of putting the council on a sustainable financial footing, must be the priority for the new councillors.

3. What do you personally see as the most popular decision of this council?

Personally, I am proud of championing assistance for our frontline hospital workers whose employer, the NSW government, does not provide onsite parking for its’ employees.

During the 2016 council elections, I committed to reducing the on-street parking fees down to $2 a day and extending time-limited parking in most areas to 4 or 10 hours.

During this pandemic, my motions to waive car parking fees and extend time limits in the hospital precinct as a gesture of support for our hospital workers have been successful and seen genuine assistance for the past two years.

4. What do you personally see as the most unpopular decision of this council?

The rejection of multiple new residential development projects (such as the Platypus Park proposal for Goonellabah) has undermined confidence in council processes and led to Council copping some of the blame for the region’s housing crisis.

While it is essential that the council assesses new developments carefully, Council must also recognise the desperate need for new residential housing stock.

People need places to live!

5. What’s been frustrating, and why?

Seeing so many projects the community wanted progressed unable to be implemented because Council does not have the financial reserves it needs to maintain the assets it already has, and cannot take on more infrastructure which adds to that burden.

Major projects such as becoming energy self-sufficient by 2023 was an aspiration that started with the Community Solar Farm and installation of solar panels on many council buildings but has been placed on hold indefinitely. Similarly, the Lismore Park was a signature project championed by a number of councillors at the 2016 elections, but cannot be progressed because the cost of maintenance is beyond Council’s ability to afford.

Council’s required annual expenditure is much greater than the revenue it generates. Getting Council’s finances on a more sustainable footing is the only way these projects can go ahead in the future, and as Mayor, this would be my principal priority.

6. What could Council do better?

Under my leadership, I would seek to bring a more consultative and consensus-based approach to the operation of Council. We should seek to find common ground rather than retreating to our polarised positions, and work together for the betterment of everyone in our community.

We can do much better at engaging with people, communicating the complexity of issues, increasing awareness of council services, and negotiating in good faith to find sustainable solutions to the many challenges our communities face.

7. Are you interested in representing Lismore on Rous CC?

I have been one of Lismore’s representatives to Rous for five years. I am passionate about ensuring water security for this region, knowing the predictions for lower rainfall as a consequence of climate change. We must explore non-rainfall dependent sources of water supply that will complement each other, and I advocate for localised supply options throughout the region rather than relying on a single centralised supply source.

Flooding is a major concern for our city and while we have a range of engineering options that propose to reduce impacts in Lismore, what we need is a holistic approach to reduce and slow the runoff from the upper catchment. Rous is the leader in this area for flood mitigation and I have worked closely with staff to ensure that catchment-wide nature-based flood mitigation options are part of the solutions.

8. What is your view on the Dunoon/Channon dam?

The proposed Dunoon Dam fails to pass the pub test at every level. It would require the destruction of a unique parcel of remnant Big Scrub rainforest and local koala food trees that provide a transit corridor through the valley. It would destroy and flood graves and other artifacts of cultural significance to our Bundjalung Elders. And it would cost well over $200 million to construct – a cost that this generation of water users would have to pay for. It has a very limited catchment and would mainly rely on Rocky Creek Dam overflowing in the wet season to fill it.

The alternative, as recommended by the NSW Productivity Commission’s recent report on water security for NSW, is that we should look for non-rainfall based options for our future water supplies. They are encouraging recycled purified water as a preferred option and recommended a pilot plant be built as soon as possible; a project that Rous wants to implement at Perradenya as part of its Future Water Strategy.   

9. How do you see Council’s relationship with the business community?

Council spends around $150M each year on projects that directly generate employment opportunities for the many businesses in the city. Council’s investment in upgraded sports facilities enables sporting teams and competitions to come to Lismore, injecting millions more into our local economy. The drive to improve the appearance and facilities in our CBD, especially our Laneways project, will revitalise the heart of the city. When combined with our signature economic stimulus events – Eat the Street and LightnUp Lismore – Council ensures that our city is on the map as a tourist destination, which again benefits our local business sector.

10. What do feel is the best way to deal with the issue of flooding?

Lismore is built at the confluence of two watercourses, in a region of heavy subtropical rains. Flooding is a reality of life for the city; living on a floodplain means being prepared for a flood and having a plan for your property on how to deal with the water.

Once the levee wall was built the CBD enjoyed 10 years flood free and became complacent. The 2017 flood was a wake-up call for the city, and with the uncertainties of climate change, we may see more damaging flood events in future. However, I do not feel the recommended engineering solutions to protect the CBD are appropriate, as they increase the flooding and damages to North and South Lismore and downriver.

What we need is a catchment-wide program of nature-based solutions to restore the natural riparian vegetation on the river and creeks of the upper river; to restore natural contours back into farmlands and regenerate the gullies and watercourses to hold and slow down water runoff from paddocks to creeks. By reducing the amount of water entering the river, we can slow the impacts and reduce the flooding downstream at Lismore.

11. Why did you originally decide to get involved with local government?

I have been interested in local government since my teens when I sat on Kuringai Council’s Youth Council and realised just how many aspects of our lives are connected to local government services. I observed Lismore Council’s business meetings and briefings every Tuesday for over a year and realised that, with my background in farming, community services and financial management, I had a lot to offer to my community and city.

12. How do you feel about that decision now?

I believe I have made a positive contribution to my community and the council during the past five years. I have advocated for greater financial accountability and transparency of council decisions; better governance oversight of our business risks and processes; and the fiscal discipline to stick to our budget and planned service delivery. As a consequence, we are now seeing a suite of measures introduced to ensure a program of continuous improvement in how Council does business and how it interacts and engages with our community. This is a long journey that requires stability and continuity of purpose, and as an experienced Councillor I will work to ensure that council, business and community partner together for the betterment of our city.

13. Do you have any political ambitions beyond local government?

Local government representation ensures that you remain close to your community, that people can approach you on the street knowing that you will listen to their concerns, will advocate for them, and achieve outcomes for them. While I want to be able to represent my communities’ needs and aspirations by personally lobbying government representatives and ministers on their behalf, my heart, my life and my work are here in Lismore, not in Sydney or Canberra.

14. How do you feel the Lismore LGA is coping with COVID?

Our community understands the need for lockdowns and restrictions to stop the spread of the virus. However, we saw the impacts on many local businesses which couldn’t afford to reopen after the lockdowns of 2020. The government support measures cannot compensate for so much loss of income – up to 100 per cent for many small businesses. The community is angry that vaccines were redirected away from regional areas to Sydney, while Sydney people were travelling here and ignoring covid safe requirements – causing another lockdown.

The government’s roadmap to recovery is still not understanding that regional areas’ vaccination rates are much lower than Sydney’s and we need protections until we too reach the 80 per cent or better targets. I have hope that once we are all able to resume normal lives again that our support for our local retail shops enables a full economic recovery for the city.

15. Do you feel Council is doing enough to support Indigenous residents?

Council staff and councillors and our Aboriginal Advisory Group meet regularly and have collaborated on our Reconciliation Action Plan, including programs for mentoring, traineeships and employment targets. During this term council assisted Jarjum to acquire land to construct its new preschool and is about to assist with their carpark.

Aboriginal representative organisations are consulted, and cultural heritage impact assessments are done, for large developments in the LGA.

Recently, in recognition of the importance of land to Aboriginal culture, Council handed back part of the North Lismore Plateau to local representatives of Widjabul Wyabul elders.

16. What is your favourite pizza topping?

Homemade base with homemade tomato, garlic and basil sauce, topped with shredded chicken, diced bacon and roast pumpkin with dots of bocconcini, olives and fresh basil leaves.

17. What do you see as the highlights of Council since the last election?

The development and upgrades of our major sporting facilities to national and international standards. Albert Park will attract state and overseas baseball teams to come and train in Lismore, in addition to the junior and senior competitions it already hosts. Oaks and Crozier Ovals will be the regional hub for rugby league, rugby union, soccer and AFL games as part of their annual competitions; we want to attract major T20 and Sheffield Shield cricket games to the city to use this wonderful facility.

Hepburn Park has been expanded and is now has two national standard hockey fields. Nesbitt Park has a recently constructed mountain bike track and very soon a new pump track. These investments will ensure Lismore is the regional sporting hub on the northern rivers.

Council has approved more than 500 new residential dwellings and dual occupancies over the past five years as well as approving rezoning and subdivisions which will provide hundreds of additional future housing stock. We are working on an Affordable Housing Strategy which will enable Council to prioritise and lead projects which will give access to the NSW government’s Social and Affordable Housing Fund.

18. What do you see as the low point of Council since the last election?

Division and conflict between councillors, and between councillors and staff, made open frank discussions impossible at times. Debates became not about the issue, but all about personalities. Trying to hold meetings via zoom during the lockdowns just made this conflict more difficult to manage, resulting in the many code of conduct complaints. This year’s business, mainly held back in chambers, has been much more collaborative and respectful.

19. In one sentence, why should people vote for you/ what do you bring to the table that the others don’t?

I bring twenty years of farming experience, twenty years of financial management of community sector organisations, and five years as a councillor to the role. These life experiences allow me to be a voice for our rural residents and farmers on issues that affect their lives. My experience with managing large budgets enables me to contribute insights and strategies towards improving councils’ financial situation, driving it to a more stable and sustainable fiscal position in the next years.

20. Is there anything else you would like to add?

As Mayor I would work with all councillors to restore accountability and trust in our Council to deliver the services promised within budget; I will actively promote our local businesses and industries and establish economic development partnerships to attract investments and new jobs to the city, and; build on our community consultation processes to ensure that council’s long-term strategies accurately reflect the views and wishes of our communities.


 

The Echo will publish profiles of all the Lismore Mayoral candidates in the coming weeks.

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6 COMMENTS

    • GBH. One of those questions if asked not easily answered.
      I will try on Barry’s behalf as he probably feels it not worthy of response.
      Vegetarians rarely cohabit with flesh eaters. (Try to imagine why that might be)

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