By ALLISON HORE
Inner West mayor Darcy Byrne has referred his own council for investigation after repeated delays to the reopening of Balmain’s beloved Dawn Fraser baths.
“The Dawny”, Australia’s oldest public pool, closed in September 2019 for extensive renovations to preserve its heritage and to make it safer for swimmers. Initially, the council said the pool would be reopened “well before the October 2020 swimming season.”
October 2020 rolled around and unforeseen structural issues set the pools’ reopening back until boxing day. But as that date also came and went, there was no further news as to when the pool would reopen.
In January a council spokesperson told the Inner West Independent most of the $8 million works at the pool had been completed, but there were challenges in the installation of fire safety features.
“A date for opening has not yet been set due to some challenges with supplying water to fire hydrants and sprinklers for emergency services,” the spokesperson said.
“Engineers are finalising plans for the water pipe which will be installed down a steep bank while protecting significant trees.”
The delays to the reopening of the baths, and lack of information in regards to a timeline, have caused widespread backlash from the community. But on Tuesday, Labor mayor Darcy Byrne wrote to NSW Auditor-General Margaret Crawford requesting she probe his own council staff’s handling of the restoration works.
“While I am very proud to have fought for and delivered the full funding that has secured the future of our famous pool, the ongoing delays to the reopening, which the community was promised would take place last year, have been unacceptable,” Mr. Byrne said.
Mayor Byrne says the community are not the only ones being left in the dark on the progress of the restoration, but that he also has been out of the loop. He said in a statement posted to his Facebook page that he has been “insisting upon receiving information and updates about the completion of the project continuously, since the opening was first delayed in December.”
Mr. Byrne admitted that upgrading the Dawny was “always going to be a complicated job,” but he said the fact that there was little transparency in the progress of the upgrades raises “serious concerns about accountability” to the community.
Councillors taken by surprise
But the mayor’s move has raised eyebrows among other councillors who say they were not made aware of the decision prior to Mr. Byrne going public with it.
Speaking to the Inner West Independent, John Stamolis, an independent councillor in the Balmain ward of the Inner West council, said while Mayor Byrne has taken ownership of the much-needed Dawn Fraser Baths renovation, he hasn’t taken responsibility for the numerous delays.
Councillor Stamolis slammed the mayor’s move to bring the matter before the auditor general calling it “completely irresponsible.” He said while the delays were a serious issue, the mayor had carried out no internal review process before putting it to the auditor general, and hadn’t sought advice from other councillors before making his decision.
“At no stage has he brought council together, at no stage has he asked for an internal review, at no stage has he brought the general manager and project managers together with the council and councillors,” he said.
“There are internal reviews that can be done, there is information that councillors should be aware of, and here we are reading in the Sydney Morning Herald his approach is to go to the auditor general.”
Mr. Stamolis said passing the responsibility of the matter on to the auditor general should have been a last resort, rather than the first course of action taken. He believes the move is more an exercise in shifting accountability for the delays than a genuine attempt to get to the bottom of them.
“This has been the biggest fundamental concern for the four years of this council, communication, and the mayor has done very little to resolve it,” he said.
In the 2017 Inner West council election, Labor did especially well in the Balmain ward earning an 11 percent swing from the Greens and almost 43 percent of the total vote. But Mr. Stamolis said the council’s failure to deliver on the pool, and other key projects, is impacting the Labor mayor’s popularity in the ward.
“Darcy’s getting hammered in this ward, it’s a key deliverable for the Balmain ward, and he’s getting hammered that there’s two seasons out, so he has to throw the blame,” he said.
Meanwhile, Balmain swimmers are being left high and- quite literally- dry as to when they will be able to dive into the Dawny again.
In his Facebook post, Mr. Byrne said a date for the reopening of the pool still cannot be confirmed but the council is working on a number of ideas to keep the pool busy even in the cooler months.
“My proposal that Dawny’s remain open across this year, with a range of recreation and social activities to take place there will still be proceeding, with a report detailing these plans to be tabled at the April Council meeting,” he said.
Last month the council resolved to extend the swimming season at the baths until at least the end of May and to waive the entry fee for two weeks upon opening as a gesture of good will.
The next Inner West council election is set to take place in September of this year after COVID-19 postponed the 2020 local government elections.
“This is simply not good enough and in the interests of transparency and probity I have referred the management of the project for independent investigation,” he said.
I have today written to the Auditor General of NSW requesting that she investigate the management and oversight of the…