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.
The current Mayor of Lismore, Councillor Vanessa Ekins was elected as Lismore’s Mayor at a Lismore City Council meeting in February.
Cr Ekins has served as a Lismore Councillor for almost 18 years and is a member of the Greens.
1. What are your intentions and hopes for the December election and beyond?
As Mayor I have worked well with Councillors, Council staff and our new General Manager on our financial strategy, finding funds for roads, affordable housing and waste recycling. I am a safe pair of hands and strong voice for our community and hope to continue as your Mayor.
2. What do you see as the biggest challenges for the Lismore LGA going forward?
Our biggest challenge is affordable housing which means working with not for profit housing providers such as North Coast Community Housing to build on council land, and making sure that new developments include a proportion of affordable housing.
Over 500 housing lots are being constructed for housing now with another 1500 in the planning stages, but these homes will cost over $500,000 each, they are not affordable and will not meet the needs of our community. This is why I have prioritised affordable housing and the Council is working on a Housing Strategy.
3. What do you personally see as the most popular decision of this council?
The decision to hand back Council owned land to the Widjabul Wiabal traditional custodians really struck a cord with our community and I thank Councillors for supporting my motion to return Sleeping Lizard Hill sites of cultural significance. This symbolic act shows Lismore supports justice and is leading Australia in the Native Title process.
4. What do you personally see as the most unpopular decision of this council?
The decision not to sell part of Lismore Park so the Lismore Square owners could build a bigger Coles supermarket generated a lot of strong comment in our community. The development designs were bulky and did not integrate with our parklands, required expensive relocation of water and sewer mains, and part closure of Brewster street which is a major link for school buses. The Square can expand upwards but not into our parklands and infrastructure.
5. What’s been frustrating, and why?
I find the time it takes to get change frustrating. For example, our community values the natural environment and Council has a budget to fund environmental restoration projects. It took 12 years to achieve, I setup an environment committee that identified options for funding this work, a project reference group took 2 years to develop a priority plan, and finally Council adopted our successful Biodiversity Strategy and Levy. I have the skills to initiate projects and the persistence to ensure they are implemented.
6. What could Council do better?
Council needs to tell the story about the hard work it does. Lismore was settled in the 1850s and our road network is older than Melbourne’s and built for bullock teams to carry timber from the plateau to the river. We were one of the first towns to be sewered in Australia. Until the 1950’s when Rocky Creek Dam was built, we were drinking water straight from the river. This year Council is investing $150 million in infrastructure and the Lismore economy. I am proud of the work Councillors and staff have done on our quarry, roads, waste management and long term financial strategy.
7. Are you interested in representing Lismore on Rous CC?
As a representative on Rous County Council since 2008, I made sure we examined all water source options for the future, I opposed spending $3million putting fluoride in the water supply when school dental programs were being scrapped, I worked with riverbank landholders to plant trees and protect water quality. Managing our water supply and river systems is important work that I take seriously and communicate well. I am keen to see Rous lead NSW in purifying and recycling wastewater to meet future household demand.
8. What is your view on the Dunoon/Channon dam
Nearly 20 years of research has gone into future water options and the Dunoon Dam does not make the cut, it is unnecessary, destructive and expensive. The water industry experts say we need diverse water sources, such as household rainwater tanks that supply daily use so our dams are available in drought, small scale groundwater plants that can be built when and if they are needed, purified recycled water because we have a large supply of wastewater. Thanks to our community for their advocacy on water sources that are affordable and sustainable, and Rous Councillors for supporting my motion to remove Dunoon Dam from the future water strategy.
9. How do you see Council’s relationship with the business community?
Council is investing $150 million in the Lismore economy this financial year, including CBD footpaths, shade and seating, community safety, cultural and arts activities. This provides jobs and projects such as the Back Alley Gallery give people a reason to go out. Council has a good relationship with the Chamber of Commerce and a new Business Activation Plan is ready to implement. I regularly visit South Lismore, Rous and Wyrallah Road shops and meet with friends in the CBD. Recent lockdowns have been hard with businesses experiencing 50% to 80% downturn but Lismore will buzz when we open up.
10. What do feel is the best way to deal with the issue of flooding?
The best way to deal with flooding is to know where you live and work and be prepared with a flood plan. Lismore was the most flood ready city in Australia, until the construction of the flood levee made us complacent and we were caught out in 2017.
Lismore will always flood, the existing flood levee limits the nuisance of minor floods but we cannot prevent a major flooding event. What we can do is know when to pack and where to go. Council has a floodplain management plan that maps potential floods and regulates building activity. As chair of Councils Floodplain Committee, I have prioritised research into nature-based solutions to flooding, which means holding water upstream for longer to reduce flood levels and velocities downstream. Community consultation on options for floodplain management will start soon.
11. Why did you originally decide to get involved with local government?
I was lobbying Council about hazardous and offensive industry in South Lismore that was impacting nearby homes. It was a long process that involved site inspections, technical reports, a media campaign and finally a decision by Council. I started attending Council meetings and they were gripping drama. Most of the Councillors were men in their 70s and 80s, some fell asleep during the meeting and one even read a newspaper. Shocked to see such lack of engagement I was motivated to run for Council. After serving on the Civic Pride and Rural Residential steering committees, I was elected to Council in 2004 with a strong interest in protecting farmland from urban encroachment and encouraging Council to look after our nature reserves and riverbanks.
12. How do you feel about that decision now?
I still have a strong interest in managing growth such that farmland and habitat are protected, infrastructure is adequate, homes are close to services and climate-appropriate, and we keep what we love about this place while preparing for the future. This requires long term planning and the continuity that an experienced Councillor provides, I am keen to keep going.
13. Do you have any political ambitions beyond local government?
The part I love best about local government is interacting with people on the street, at the pool, in the library, during a normal working day, and making decisions about important local matters like waste recycling, water supply, land release, sports facilities. The role of Mayor includes liaising with local members of parliament and lobbying government ministers which is a challenge I am enjoying. Our state and federal representatives spend a lot of time away from home, I belong to this place Widjabul Wiabal country and have little interest in leaving the northern rivers region.
14. How do you feel the Lismore LGA is coping with COVID?
I think our community has coped well, we understand lockdown is effective at limiting the spread of covid. There is frustration at the slow release of information about cases and venues of concern and delays in accessing vaccines. While Sydney is 70% fully vaccinated, regional NSW is only at 50% and we need time to catch up. There is real anger at the state government for permitting 57,000 travel exemptions so people can visit the regions looking at real estate. It has been hard for casual workers and small businesses experiencing downturns of 50% to 80%. We are all hoping that when vaccination rates are over 80% and Australia opens up, we can get out and about in relative safety.
15. Do you feel Council is doing enough to support Indigenous residents?
Handing back culturally significant land is one kind of support. Another is helping Jarjums preschool build their crucial facility in the heart of Goonellabah. Council has an ambitious training and employment program as part of our Reconciliation Action Plan and our Aboriginal Advisory Group meet regularly. I would like to see a dedicated youth space operate in Goonellabah so young people have a place of their own.
16. What is your favourite pizza topping?
Vegetarian with pepperoni, it has everything even pineapple!
17. What do you see as the highlights of Council since the last election?
The highlight was the emotion and joy in the Council chamber when we agreed to hand back Council owned land to the Widjabul Wiabal traditional custodians. Aboriginal elders addressed Councillors at the start of the meeting, telling stories of growing up on Sleeping Lizard Hill. Our community talked about the decision for days afterward. Also working with the new General Manager and a focussed team of Councillors has been a real pleasure this year. I look forward to building on these relationships during the next term of Council.
18. What do you see as the low point of Council since the last election?
The low point was attempting to meet as a Council via zoom during Covid lockdowns. Communication was difficult, there was a lot of distrust between Councillors and Council management and this resulted in a large number of code of conduct complaints. We work best when we meet face to face and can focus on serving our community. I am proud of the way Councillors and staff have worked together this year.
19. In one sentence, why should people vote for you/ what do you bring to the table that the others don’t?
I bring to the table 16 years experience advocating for climate-appropriate building design, housing close to services, rainwater tanks, roads, footpaths and cycleways, protection of farmland and restoration of habitat. I am an active member of the community, shopping local, swimming at the memorial baths, visiting the library and art gallery, participating in events, volunteering with Lismore Lantern Parade, RiverFM community radio and Landcare planting trees on our riverbanks. I have studied at Southern Cross University and taught in every local high school and am currently learning Auslan at Tafe. I know our community and have the experience to protect what we love about this place and prepare for the future.
20. Is there anything else you would like to add?
I am loving being your Mayor, interacting with our community, working with Councillors and Council staff, representing Lismore to state and federal government Ministers, telling the story of this place in Widjabul Wiabal country. Safe hands strong voice.
The Echo plans to publish profiles of all the Lismore Mayoral candidates in the coming weeks.