The five things that toppled the Curran council
IN 2016, more than two thirds of the Gympie region made Mick Curran their first choice for mayor.
Last Saturday, more than two-thirds preferred someone else for the job.
It is a staggering fall for an elected representative who, with preferences, once held 76 per cent of the region’s support.
So what happened?
1. It’s a question of money
Ripping through more than $40 million in reserves is a spectacular spending spree, no matter how you cut it.
And it can be cut several ways.
There’s been an ongoing argument over the past four years as to whether the reserves were too high.
At its heart it’s purely ideological; conservative versus liberal.
It’s easy to defend your position, whichever it is, if the financial reports are rosy.
And they are not when the state’s latest audit downgrades your long-term financial sustainability risk from “lower” to “moderate” thanks to the council’s ongoing program of spending more than it earned.
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Yes, the council took on no new debt so it was not as bad as it could have been.
But it failed to create faith this spending habit could be stopped.
Forget the idea of council hoarding excessive surpluses each year.
How about just being $1 million in the black?
Even this turned out to be beyond the council’s reach, though; the highest surplus attained in the past four years was $323,000 in 2016-17.
The bottom line was red in every other year.
In fact, the last surplus to break the $1 million mark was 2014-15 – the year Mr Curran took over from Ron Dyne.
2. Heritage plan is rattled
“The Rattler will run” was an integral part of Mr Curran’s 2016 re-election campaign.
But the delivered project never quite aligned with what was promised.
The 2016 business case promised $10.6 million in council and state funds.
It was $17.8 million instead – plus other ongoing expenses.
So what went wrong?
The region still doesn’t know.
A review launched in 2018, so the public and council together could “have confidence in the way council manages future projects” is still floating in limbo.
The October 2018 Round-up said “it was clear the tender documents prepared were deficient”.
This is reportedly the legal issue holding up progress.
But clear is the last thing it is; still nothing has been proven legally. It’s far from a smoking gun.
And besides – this was the alleged cause of the second blowout.
What was behind the first and third?
Now, one year, 11 months and nine days since the review was announced, the picture is as clear as mud.
3. Unenviable ratings
Rates are an eternal hassle for councils across the country.
But last year you could feel the anger in waves.
In 2019, half the region was given an increase of no more than 2 per cent. Which left half the region to eat a much larger increase – some on the back of huge hikes delivered in 2018.
That’s a lot of voters.
And they no doubt rankled whenever they were told rates had only risen by an average 1.8 per cent per year for the past term.
When the ECQ releases the final booth results from this election, the level of support for Mr Curran in the regional areas will be something to watch.
Anecdotal reports are it will not be pretty.
4. Divided we stand
The city/country divide bubbled under the surface for years.
Last year, it finally boiled over.
There’s a backlash on the coast where – despite being a tourism mecca and accounting for more than 10 per cent of the region’s population – big ticket items like a jetty or a splash park failed to materialise in the era of the Rattler, the aquatic centre and the youth hub.
Or slip over to Goomeri where the water dried up and the pool broke.
Frustrating at the best of times. Infuriating when the council’s capital works bills over the past few years includes a $65,000 Christmas tree for Gympie, and millions for upgrades to Smithfield and Upper Mary Streets.
5. A failure to communicate
Transparency and community consultation was a popular battleground for the past four years.
Mr Curran was at pains to stress it had improved; the public refused to buy it.
The council’s 2017 customer satisfaction survey (the latest one available) revealed the council’s communication, consultation and community response rankings actually sank.
In a nutshell: over the past two years the council had to work just to get back to 2015 levels – which ended with almost every sitting councillor being booted.