Amid the soap-operatic scandals going on inside the NSW Government, voters could be forgiven for forgetting that local council elections are just around the corner.
Nominations for those wishing to throw their hat in the ring at the December 4 poll have closed, and in towns and cities around the State, a fresh batch of candidates are already hitting the campaign trail.
These would-be councillors are no doubt brimming with ideas and a strong desire to serve their local communities.
But as the successful candidates take their seats around the table for the first time, in what state of repair will they find this third tier of government?
In the period since the last election, the pressures on a number of councils across NSW have been on display in dramatic and costly ways.
Several communities found themselves governed not by elected representatives but by state government-appointed administrators, their councils too dysfunctional to continue.
This includes Wingecarribee in the Southern Highlands, where a weary community is counting the cost of legal and consulting fees racked up by their suspended council.
At Armidale in the state's New England, public morale hit rock bottom when the feuding council went into administration, followed by a flurry of resignations by councillors, including the mayor and the general manager.
In Port Macquarie, when the ambitious project to build a glamorous entertainment centre, The Glasshouse, blew its budget seven times over it led to the sacking of the council. Years of tumult followed, with a line-up of administrators and senior council staff fleeing through a revolving door. Recovery from periods of administration can be slow.
Between October 2020, and September 30, 2021, the western city of Dubbo's council racked up 55 such complaints. Bitter internal strife first bubbled to the surface with calls for then mayor Ben Shields to resign. He eventually stepped, down citing the toll the conflict was taking on his mental health. An independent investigator has since found numerous complaints were mishandled during this time period, which led to an overhaul of council's complaints-handling practices.
In most communities, a bit of verbal "council bashing" has traditionally been a lighthearted pastime, perhaps seen as nothing more than good sport. But the rise of social media's keyboard warriors has added a new pressure for those in public life, including local councillors. It's a burden one veteran councillor describes as "fighting with shadows".
During lockdowns councils relied on live streams of their meetings, but even the knowledge that proceedings were being recorded hasn't always improved the standard of behaviour on the council floor.
At Bega on the Far South Coast, for example, a rowdy shout-fest during which one councillor called another a "lunatic" has been doing the rounds of the internet.
For voters, it begs the question about what standard we expect of our elected leaders? Would we take a group of school children to listen to a council meeting?
The good work councils do - and there is plenty of it - is vital to our communities.
In the cities, towns and villages of regional NSW, this tier of government is closest to home; grassroots decisions made by local councils dictate our basic amenities, our cost of living and the quality of services we rely on every day.
Our choice of candidates on December 4 will influence the way our towns look, the way they function and the quality of life for our residents.
Over the next four weeks, our ACM regional journalists will be bringing you stories that test the health of this layer of democracy. We'll look at how far we've come and what needs to change.
Today's councils are not just made up of waistcoated white men, although we still have some way to go. While councils themselves are actively seeking greater diversity, in 2020 just under 32 percent of elected councillors were women, around four per cent were under the age of 30 and less than two percent were indigenous.
For country councils, the biggest slow-creeping change has been the infiltration of party politics. A stint as a councillor in Orange or Batemans Bay is now seen by career politicians as a stepping stone to a job in Macquarie Street or Canberra.
Today, councils raise their heads from hyper-local issues to present a united voice in national conversations, lending their support to issues such as marriage equality and climate change reform. Lengthy debates about whether council meetings should start with a christian prayer, and whether the queen should smile down upon them from a painting on the wall, are evidence of a slow evolution away from tradition.
Over the coming weeks we'll meet councillors from our regional towns and cities from diverse backgrounds, as well as long serving councillors who have devoted their lives to the service of their communities.
We'll also meet some of our avid "council watchers" and members of ratepayers associations; people who keep a closer eye than most on council matters.
Along the way we'd love to hear from you about what issues you see as important to your regional community as we head towards the poll.
Drop your local ACM editor a line and have your say in this important conversation.
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