A $297 million funding proposal by Darwin Council to the Federal Government to create a swimming beach and upgrade major roads and sporting facilities has been criticised by aldermen for being rushed and not permitting proper consideration by elected members.
Council requested the funds last week through a billion-dollar federal stimulus fund aimed at speeding up COVID-19 economic recovery in the regions.
But council aldermen say the projects were chosen behind closed doors by staff, robbing elected members of the chance to debate the ideas on behalf of their constituents.
The big-ticket items include redeveloping Dick Ward Drive, now decades old, to better handle flooding and increases in traffic; creating a croc-free place to swim at Lameroo Beach; and upgrading public amenities at the Mindil Beach Market and the Nightcliff Foreshore.
Alderman Robin Knox said the proposal was put to elected members during a briefing, but a formal council meeting for discussion and approval was skipped.
“For someone to put up a proposal for $297 million is very serious, if we get the funding we’d be committed to the projects,” she said.
“People are upset about the plans for Dick Ward Drive… we didn’t get the chance to put forward our ideas… things must be done in meetings with minutes.
“This is not open governance.”
Opposition to council submission
Alderman Knox said the council’s multi-million-dollar submission had already been sent to Canberra by the time the document was put before elected members for discussion at the last council meeting on August 11.
Alderman Simon Niblock and Alderman Justine Glover also took issue with the proposal, proposing the submission be tabled until further information had been gathered.
“I felt there wasn’t enough information for [elected members] to make a decision,” Alderman Niblock said.
He said the submission lacked important details usually provided in a project report, such as returns on investment, processes, a lifecycle analysis, or who would be involved into the future.
He pointed to the Darwin Wave Pool as an example of unexpected running costs, saying money would also have to be spent on managing the proposed swimming beach.
Alderman Justine Glover said environmental impacts and consultations with the community had not yet occurred despite the council framing the projects as “shovel ready”.
“These are huge projects with potential environmental impacts,” she said.
“I appreciate the council had to put together ideas quickly but there is a proper process.”
She said the Lameroo Baths project was a particular concern because of the cultural importance of the site to the Larrakia people.
“Consultations for this project happened many years ago before I was elected onto council, but the community has changed,” she said.
“As Alderman we have to do our own due diligence, we have to be strong and stand up for what is right if we see something wrong being done.”
Mayor says proposal needed to go quickly or funds would be lost
In response, Darwin Lord Mayor Kon Vatskalis said the proposal to the Federal Government needed to be submitted quickly “to instigate economic reconstruction and development post COVID-19.”
He also said the projects had already been considered by elected members about five or six years ago when they were included in the council’s Future Capital Works or the CBD Masterplan.
“Any allegations by councillors that they didn’t know anything about this is mischievous,” he said.
“They want to play politics.
“All this work was already in our Future Capital Works. Every councillor who reads the minutes should know it is there and if you don’t know it is there, that means you are not doing your job properly.
“It would be a serious, serious breach if you put the Masterplan together without consulting the community. This masterplan dates back to 2005-07. The community was consulted then about the Lameroo Baths… and obviously they were receptive. That’s why it went into the Masterplan.”
Darwin Council CEO Scott Waters said focus is on “shovel-ready” projects which can be delivered immediately and create jobs in the construction industry, as fears the hard-hit sector will continue to suffer due to the economic downturn.
The council has estimated the whole project could secure 763 jobs, and many more indirectly, at a time when more than one million Australians are out of work.
“On the back of this COVID downturn we’re hoping these projects will stimulate the economy before Christmas, and then when the economy recovers we will have these projects completed as an asset for the community” Mr Waters said.
The multi-million-dollar proposal for roads and sporting upgrades is part of a collective $1 billion submission through the Council of Capital City Lord Mayors.
The project plans were put to Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack for consideration ahead of the federal budget, due to be handed down on October 6.