In an unexpected twisting and turning of events that lead to the resignation of Lismore’s Mayor Isaac Smith, a new mayor was elected by Lismore councillors on February 9 this year and Vanessa Ekins took over the broken mess with the aim of turning things around by what was then, the already COVID-delayed September Local Government elections.
With Tuesday’s Council meeting being the last for the year, Vanessa has all but hung up her mayoral robes – she is still Mayor until December 20 when the count starts – the community will now have to wait until then to find out if she will return or if there will be a new bottom in the big chair.
A very long and difficult term
Though it was the final meeting for the term – there were still important issues to discuss and it was business as usual – Cr Ekins did say there was a real feeling of camaraderie in the chambers.
‘It has been a very long and difficult term. I feel that under my leadership, councillors worked well together this year and focused on the important issues: understanding our financial situation and developing a strategy for financial sustainability; accessing additional funding from the state and federal governments for our extensive road network; prioritising affordable housing and working with the community housing sector to build affordable housing on council land; developing a waste strategy that focuses on reuse and recycling waste into useful products; moving towards water security and starting the reconciliation process by handing back land to the Widjabul Wia-bal traditional custodians.
‘We have worked hard together with our excellent new management team on real outcomes for our community,’ she said.
While it was a particularly difficult term with floods, fires and the pandemic, Council still managed to fix some roads, collect the garbage bins and mow the 230 parks in the shire.
Ekins loved being Lismore Mayor
Cr Ekins said she was mindful that it might be her last meeting as Mayor. ‘I have really enjoyed this year as Lismore’s Mayor. It has been an honour to represent our lovely city. We face the same challenges as every local government but we also have a strong and diverse population, environment and economy.
‘This council is making a $150 million investment in Lismore this financial year. This is massive! Lismore is the regional service centre and 35,000 commuters drive into Lismore every day to work and shop and to access our schools and TAFE, our world-class hospitals and medical facilities, our law courts and administration services.
‘We need to remember that we are the regional centre and this is something to be proud of,’ said Mayor Ekins.
Code of Conduct cat out of the bag
The Code of Conduct speeches at the meeting took everyone by surprise as the information had previously been confidential.
’The end of term report is usually an opportunity for councillors to reflect on the work of the term,’ said Mayor Ekins. ‘Councillors have been through a very difficult term and not only dealt with natural disasters and the responsibility of office, but also significant personal pressure.
‘I think it was important for us to be able to share some of that. We all care deeply about this place and that is why we devote so much of our time and energy to Council, and our community needs to acknowledge this.’
What prospective Mayors and Councillors need to know
Cr Ekins said that only one of the prospective Mayors turned up for the meeting. ‘It is a real shame that candidates are not informing themselves about meeting processes and the huge variety of matters Council is responsible for. I hope new councillors are ready for the challenge.
‘The Council chamber is a very formal place with specific rules of debate and conduct. To date, every Mayor of Lismore has been an experienced councillor and very familiar with how to conduct a meeting, and this expertise is necessary for the effective running of the council.’
If you have watched a council meeting, you will understand what a marathon it can be, and Cr Ekins said the public is interested in the formal meetings which occur once a month.
’It has been the best show in town during the pandemic! However, being a Councillor also involves committee work, such as the floodplain committee which I chair and the Aboriginal Advisory committee and Access committee etc… there are about 10 committees,’ she said.
‘Council holds briefings every week and there is a huge amount of reading for each meeting, usually the formal reports and up to three attachments of 200 pages each, and this is just the reading! Most documents require follow up questions and research.
‘Councillors can expect to spend several hours every day dealing with email and phone calls with the public. It is a big job but one that I love because I have the technical skills to cope with the documentation and also because I like people.’
Do mayors need to be experienced councillors?
There has been a suggestion from the community that there needs to be a rule that excludes people who haven’t served time on council, from running for mayor.
Cr Ekins said she thinks in the interests of serving the community and effectively running a $200 million organisation, the mayor needs to be an experienced councillor with a thorough understanding of how council operates.
‘After 17 years as a councillor and this year as mayor, I know first hand that you need experience to run the organisation, and the continuity to ensure our housing, waste, roads and finance strategies are implemented.
‘You also need extensive networks within the community – you need to know this place.’
Cr Ekins hopes that the new mayor, be it herself or someone else, has a long term perspective. ‘It’s very important. Projects take time to develop, fund and implement. It’s also very important to treat fellow councillors with respect, we all want the best for Lismore.
‘Consult widely and get out into the community every day, go to events, volunteer and have fun.’
The good work of Council
Cr Ekins said she’s satisfied with the good work Council did this year. ‘We appointed a new general manager, developed a financial strategy, prioritised affordable housing, waste management and water security.
‘I look forward to being actively involved in the implementation of these projects and Council’s $150 million investment in Lismore,’ she said.
‘I am happy with what this council has achieved.’