It has been two decades since the Naracoorte District Council and Lucindale District Council merged together to create the unified council that we know today.
But history shows that it wasn’t without its controversies. In this three part series we will be tracing how the merger came to be; how it impacted communities (in particular Lucindale’s); and how stakeholders in the event still feel about it in the present.
In the second part of this series we will be tracing how the merger came about, and the fallout caused by the decision.
Friends and enemies
At the conclusion of Part One, the Lucindale council were facing crises related to secession, high rates, and a low population. There was still resistance regarding merging with Naracoorte due to community pushback and the Naracoorte’s council’s efficiency rates, so a merger with Wattle Range council was proposed.
Wattle Range were wary because of the fighting going on between councillors, with pro-merger and anti-merger factions clearly emerging.
Meanwhile, the Naracoorte District Council weren’t wasting time. They came to a mutual agreement with Lucindale to share Naracoorte council’s development officer Ron Ashenden, and their environmental health officer Dr Bob Netherton.
And whilst the Lucindale council and community were bracing themselves for public consultations with the SA Local Government Reform Board in mid-to-late May, the Naracoorte council had asked the board for their own report.
Namely, whether an amalgamation of the two councils would provide more resources and focus for economic development and tourism.
The first consultations
The first of the public hearings was held, with thirty people coming out to speak for Lucindale, with feelings in the community still indicating that they would be better on their own.
Three people came out to speak at Naracoorte.
The board decided to defer their decision on whether to merge the two councils, until their meeting the next month (June).
Before departing, board chairman Annette Eiffe warned that under the new rules, both large and small councils would be expected to meet the same operating guidelines, and that smaller councils would find this “increasingly difficult”.
Push and pull
This warning prompted chairman Chris Johnson and CEO Warren Reimann to once again push for Lucindale to amalgamate with Naracoorte. The meeting with Wattle Range had largely been moot, except for Wattle Range saying that they would gladly take those who wished to secede (such as the Hundreds of Fox) into their own council.
So, it was back to square one – merge with Naracoorte, or stand alone. But unlike the first rumblings of a proposed merger, time wasn’t on Lucindale’s side. The board only had so much patience, and whilst they were willing to defer a decision and take into account community pushback, they were also looking for a definitive answer by the end of the year.
Naracoorte reached out to Lucindale to resume negotiations, keeping in mind the board’s recommendations that a council office should still be in Lucindale, and members from both councils should sit in the chambers if there was a merger.
Lucindale waved off the invitation, still preoccupied with arguing over rapidly rising costs, for both their council and Naracoorte’s. Chris Johnson pointed out that even though the Lucindale’s rates had risen by 3% for 1998-1999, they would still need to raise to cover upcoming costs in the 1999-2000 budget.
Costs included an additional $20,000 for administrative services in the wake of the amended Local Government Act – which could lead to their office becoming even more cramped, so Chris Johnson suggested it could end up being blown out to $60,000.
There was also $30,000 earmarked for computer upgrades in case of the Millennium Bug.
(For those too young to remember the Millenium Bug was supposed to be some kind of 21st century super virus, it was an absolutely wild time).
The idea of the Hundreds of Fox seceding still weighed heavily on the council as well. Whilst Cr Trevor Rayner doubted that the Hundreds of Fox would go through with breaking away if Lucindale stood alone, he still wanted to resume talks with Wattle Range.
There were also land prices to think about – in projected forecasts, both Naracoorte and Lucindale’s land values were estimated to rise by millions by 2000/2001 ($6.5m for Lucindale and $54m for Naracoorte).
Whilst the merger of the two Naracoorte councils had kept rates steady and they were 8% lower than Lucindale’s, the Naracoorte District Council were also certain their rates could stay down – as long as the Federal grants for works and upgrades kept coming in.
Because their council had recently had a blowout, with plans for upgrade to a new depot growing from $275,000 to $440,000. Lucindale residents had also noted Naracoorte had a higher debt than they did.
Meanwhile, the anti-merger faction of the Lucindale council were insisting that if they held steady and didn’t have a blowout with their own maintenance depot upgrades, they would be able to stand alone and keep business as usual. The council hadn’t received complaints about their rates from citizens, and both the faction and citizens were skeptical of Lucindale’s interests being protected in a merger.
The anti-merger faction wanted more time – the reports had indicated that Lucindale’s economic power would increase, and rates would go down. But for how long? Three years? Five years? Was a honeymoon period worth risking their independence?
But a decision had to be made, and made soon. If Lucindale didn’t make a decision either way the board had indicated that their boundaries may be split anyway, between Naracoorte, Lucindale, and Wattle Range. The citizens of Lucindale and surrounding areas would be broken by choice or by force.
One of the more interesting comments about the level of stress felt by citizens at this time came not from Lucindale, but from Naracoorte.
Former councillor Ken Grundy had been following the merger saga, and was one of the few Naracoorte citizens who joined the council in listening to the board during their public meetings.
He observed that whilst the council were pushing for the merger, the Naracoorte populace, well, simply didn’t care.
Why would you care if you had nothing to lose?
As history shows, despite all the community feeling and careful budget considerations, when the merger was put to a vote on August 19 1998, the Lucindale council voted yes. Five to three.
40 anti-merger protestors were in the chambers and booed the decision. Mitch Williams’ office was flooded with calls. Letters came into the Herald, calling the decision “a travesty of justice”.
On September 9 Local Government Minister Mark Brindal kicked the hornet’s nest by stating that the “noisiest” wouldn’t sway the board’s decision to proceed with the merger. As he met with Lucindale councillors to discuss the merger (to be done by December 1) he was greeted by more than 20 angry residents who held up signs about betrayal and threatened a political fallout.
Brindal ignored them, but Lucindale’s wrath left Patrick Secker shaken. Secker would go on to win the seat of Barker, but at the time he was just a Keith farmer trying his luck as the Liberal contender. He attempted damage control by stating that Lucindale should have been allowed to stand alone, because there were 300-400 voters who were now “ropeable”.
Whilst Mitch Williams would eventually rejoin the Liberals in 1999, he was also critical of the board’s bullheadedness, stating that what was happening with Naracoorte-Lucindale and Lacepede-Robe “had overriden the democratic process” and believed country councils were being pressured more than city councils.
Lucindale was set to save $148,000 due to its merger with Naracoorte, mostly due to elected members’ expenses being cut down. As promised, only three Lucindale councillors could sit on the new merged council.
The contest was between Chris Johnson, Trevor Rayner, Graham Carter, Jim James, and former councillor Stephen Thompson, who had been angered by the merger.
Councillor Kevin Smith was also furious about the merger, and also became a “former” councillor – he walked out of the chambers and never returned during the October meeting.
The Lucindale District Council was officially disbanded after 120 years in November, and Chris Johnson, Graham Carter and Trevor Rayner were elected to the Naracoorte Lucindale Council.
Councillor Rayner still sits on the council today, and has put up his hand to serve another term.
In December, with no Lucindale council to advise, the Lucindale Community Development Board held their final meeting, ending 20 years of service.
In the last part of our series, we will be speaking with the people who were there during this tumultuous time for Lucindale and Naracoorte. Where are they now, what they thought at the time, and if they have any regrets.