Darcy Byrne is the inaugural mayor of Inner West Council and was the last mayor of Leichhardt Council.
Leichhardt Council ceased to exist when it was amalgamated with Ashfield and Marrickville Councils in 2016 to form the Inner West Council.
2021 will mark the end of council’s first term, and over five years the bruises left by amalgamation seem yet to heal.
As mayor of Leichhardt, Byrne opposed the amalgamation.
“I didn’t believe the government’s arguments at the time, they didn’t make the case for why an amalgamation would be an improvement, it was purely ideological and that’s why I opposed it then,” he told the Inner West Independent.
On May 24 this year, Council voted in the majority for residents to be polled on the day of elections on whether the inner west local government area should be de-amalgamated to restore the three former councils.
The mayor voted against the poll.
“Having been through the process and seen how disruptive it was and also how much the government was able to get away with while there was no elected council in place, I’m just really fearful about what the consequences could be [of de-amalgamation].”
Byrne said for 18 months Council was run by an administrator until representatives were elected in September 2017.
“In that time, there’d been cutbacks to services, a lack of responsiveness from the council and big state government projects like WestConnex had been smashed through without any organised Council opposition,” he said.
One of the arguments from those who want to de-amalgamate is the long council meetings which often prove cantankerous.
Byrne said most of the community don’t watch council meetings and don’t care about politicians squabbling with each other.
“I agree that the meetings can be challenging and messy, that’s not what matters, it would be good if that improved, what really matters is the quality of the services that’s being provided to residents and how effective the council is in supporting the community,” he said.
The costs of de-amalgamation are something the community would pay attention to, according to Byrne.
A cost/benefit analysis moved by Labor will be returned to Council on August 3rd. While the results remain unknown, Byrne fears a shortage of funding may derail a successful de-amalgamation.
“There will be costs in the tens of millions of dollars … I don’t trust the government to fund that, they didn’t fund the amalgamation properly, why would they fund the de-amalgamation properly?”
The Independent asked whether he will honour the decision of the community if the poll reveals the community is in majority support of de-amalgamation.
“The truth is the local government minister is the only person who has the power to undertake a de-amalgamation.
“Given the big risks, and the fact that it’s completely out of Council’s control, the survey is not my priority, I want to make the Inner West Council work for local residents, and so that’s what I’m trying to stay focused on, especially now during the pandemic.”
Byrne spent his boyhood in Balmain.
“It was a place you tried to get out of, not into,” he said.
“It was famous at the time for having brickies and barristers drinking together in the front bar of the pubs.”
Byrne’s parents were both schoolteachers who had been members of the Labor party at different times.
“I always grew up with politics,” he said.
His main motivation to follow a political career was the decade he spent managing services for disadvantaged young people in public housing estates around the inner city as a caseworker and a program manager.
Byrne contends the sense of community in Balmain and the inner west is still the same as when he was a kid.
“I think people move to the inner west because they want to have that sense of community, and that’s what I like about the place.”
The Independent asked Byrne about the accusations from Inner West Council Greens that the Labor Party refuses to work with them.
“It’s true that I haven’t been able to work closely with the Greens on this term of council, but that’s because we have different goals, they want to destroy the council, and I want to make it work for local people, and they’re very diametrically opposed.
“A cynic would say that’s the reason for running on a de-amalgamation agenda because you can avoid the responsibility of actually having to say how you would improve things,” Byrne said.
The Greens have said that Labor struck up an alliance with the Liberal candidates, particularly Julie Passas for the majority of the council term and that this alliance was used to get Byrne his position as mayor.
Byrne said he was aware Councillor Passas had a record of being argumentative on Ashfield Council but claimed that he didn’t really know her.
“I thought it was important after the last election to make sure that the progressive policy agenda could be implemented and that we needed to win the mayoralty in order to do that.
“The fact is that the Liberal councillors said before the election that they would not support the Greens, so it was no surprise that the Liberals supported us.”
Julie Passas was found guilty by a tribunal of having committed homosexual vilification and found by the Supreme Court to be guilty of defamation in July last year. Byrne said he has publicly advocated for the Liberal party to withdraw support for her.
The mayor is currently under scrutiny by a tribunal that found him guilty of misconduct. The NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal will decide his penalty, which could be suspension from office. He declined to answer questions about the case due to sub judice.
The Independent reported previously that the Facebook posts which a conduct reviewer found breached the Council’s social media policy were still up at the beginning of July. As of July 23, they had been removed.
Members of Facebook group Inner West Council Watch have said the mayor has blocked them despite not being abusive or offensive towards him. Byrne kept distant when asked about the happenings of the group.
“I’m not able to comment on what’s said in the Inner West Council Watch Group as I have been blocked. I’m not sure why that’s happened, you’d have to ask the moderators of the group.”
Marghanita da Cruz is the only incumbent Green running for re-election. da Cruz is a moderator of the Inner West Council Watch group and denied blocking the mayor from the page. She said the Greens were waiting until they know which of them are elected before they put forward a mayoral candidate.
Byrne said he’s been focused on trying to take what was good about the three former councils and expand it to improve services and improve the quality of infrastructure projects.
He said the three former councils were not able to achieve projects the amalgamated council has completed. These are the Marrickville Library, which has been nominated as one of the five best libraries on earth, the new Ashfield Aquatic Centre, the biggest infrastructure project in the history of local government in the inner west, and the heritage restoration of the Dawn Fraser Baths, the Balmain pool Byrne learnt how to swim in.