Berrigan Shire Mayor reflects on last two years, looks ahead

By Southern Riverina News

James Bennett: What do you believe has been your biggest achievement as Mayor since you’ve come into the position?

Matt Hannan: I’m head of the council but when you talk about achievements it’s the whole organisation, so that’s my colleagues and staff.

Being able to successfully attract funding with our major infrastructure and capital works we have going is pretty significant.

One example is the Tocumwal Foreshore. It’s something that has been in the pipeline for a while, and to see works happening is probably our biggest achievement in years.

JB:Why did you run for council and the position as Mayor?

MH: I originally ran for council because I wanted to give back to the local community.

Moving on from that, I think it’s imperative we expose local government to all age demographics across the shire and putting my hand up for mayor gives a good opportunity for me to showcase local government isn’t just for any typical person.

JB: Tell me something about yourself that the community might not know.

MH: I shouldn’t probably say it, but I’m a passionate Collingwood supporter.

I’m a lover of sport; I play a bit of lawn bowls.

I’m a family man and love working the youth of the community.

I try to be a role model for the youth.

The reason I’m in local government is because I love working with the community. I don’t have any grandiose aspirations at this point in time.

You’re never going to please everyone unfortunately, but I’m just out there trying to do the best I can.

JB: Have you been able to use your position as Mayor to raise awareness of disability issues?

MH: I wouldn’t say raise awareness.

I work at Finley Public School, and have been there for 15 years, so there’s a bit of awareness there.

Maybe going to play bowls in the National Disability Championships in Perth was something.

I haven’t been the biggest advocate in that (disability) sector, but I think in this day and age we’ve come a lot further from where we were when I first started.

JB: What are the Berrigan Shire’s biggest assets?

MH: Our people, 100 per cent. Our people are certainly the biggest asset, but we have many of them.

From our schools to our age care facilities; I know they aren’t council run facilities, but they’re all part of the community.

Our sporting facilities, events, parks and gardens — we have numerous assets.

JB: A big issue for the Berrigan Shire in recent years has been the Finley School of Arts and War Memorial Hall. As someone who has been at the forefront of the issues both as a councillor and mayor, how would you assess the way council handled the situation?

MH: If you ever say you get things right all the time, you’re probably telling a few stories.

I think council could have handled it better at times. It’s really hard to engage the whole community, that’s one issue.

And that’s not just Berrigan Shire, that’s all shires across NSW.

Often when you miss somebody, they’re the ones who should have engaged.

Probably the engagement process at the start could have been better but also I don’t think all of Finley was able to see what council envisaged, and what could have happened at the precinct.

People are attached to things in their community, and I respect that too.

From my point of view you need to know what is going to be needed and what will service your community down the track.

Of course we could have done things better, but I’m not going to dredge up stuff from the past. It’s going to be up to the community going forward what they decide to do.

JB: You touched on it a little bit in that answer but if you could have your time over again how would council handle it differently?

MH: The first thing we’d have is more money.

I wasn’t the mayor when we went through that consultation period, but if I was I would probably try and sell the vision of what we were trying to do in the first place.

And that’s imperative; the community will come with you if they can see into that vision.

That’s not a knock on Bernard (Curtin) or anybody, that’s just how I would have done it.

At the end of the day I live in Finley and you like to think you know you’re people.

JB: Every year the Berrigan Shire must vote on Strawberry Fields. Similar to the Finley War Memorial Hall, residents are either for it or against it. Where do you stand on Strawberry Fields, particularly as there’s such an emphasis on concerns around drugs, while on the other hand there’s such an emphasis on the cash injection it brings?

MH: I’m not going to talk about the planning issues or the moral issues.

At the end of the day we’ve worked with Strawberry Fields over a five year period and I’ve watched that festival evolve in that planning and setup of what they’re trying the achieve.

As mayor I hold them to account.

Unfortunately we live in a society where drugs are an issue. Can we stop people from taking them? No.

Can we provide safety at events where people partake in that? Yes.

I’ve been on the record a few times saying we’ve had that event in our community and I, as mayor, want it to be the safest event in Australia.

At the end of the day, one fatality is one too many and we don’t need any fatalities in this area at all.

We need to make sure the event organisers are held accountable to what they say they’re going to do.

JB: The thing that stood out for me when I was reporting at my first council meeting was there are no women on council. Do you believe more women should run for council?

MH: 100 per cent. I’ve been on council for 10 years and during that time there have been two females on council — Andrea O’Neill and the late Liz McLaurin.

It’s a difficult one. That’s something I’d like to do in the next couple of years — get out there and talk to women about standing.

I work with a lot of females, I work with a lot of females at school, local government areas, community groups and most committees have women on them.

Is it something that is accessible for women to be involved in council? Maybe not, because of the times we have meetings, and that’s something we can look at down the track to encourage more people to be involved.

Just for balance and a different perspective, we don’t profess to know all the answers.

However at the end of the day, if women don’t decide to stand or if they do decide (to stand) they’re voted on accordingly.

JB: Berrigan Shire was one of the few local councils in country NSW that did not merge. At the time the council was happy it didn’t merge with other councils, but we’re seeing surrounding councils such as Edward River and Murrumbidgee receive an additional $10 million for merging plus more money with the Stronger Country Communities Fund. Before the mergers, Berrigan Shire was also branded an ‘unfit’ council by the NSW Government. Has not merging held the Berrigan Shire back and are you concerned that merged councils are receiving more funding support?

MH: Well first of all the ‘unfit’ word is not mentioned any more at state government level. It seems to have disappeared into cyber space so we’re not deemed ‘fit’ or ‘unfit’.

We’re very proud of being a stand alone council.

My belief is Berrigan Shire is a really progressive council and while the other areas around us have received additional funds to work through that amalgamation process, it hasn’t come without its issues.

I talk to my colleagues at both Edward River and Murrumbidgee, and they both have significant challenges and I’m not one to sit back and have an opinion on what they’re doing.

However it’s ongoing and they’re still having issues, so we’re quite proud of the fact we’re able to stand alone.

We’re quite proud of the fact our community was quite loud in that instance by saying the Berrigan Shire could stand alone.

I think it’s proof while we’re not deemed ‘fit’ or ‘unfit’, we’re still getting on and providing for our residents.

JB: The SRN receives constant feedback and one recent issue that’s coming across is that community consultation from the shire has been lacking. This is particularly mentioned in reference to the Berrigan tree planting and town entry sign debates. Do you think it is something the shire has to address?

MH: As I said before, community engagement is always a real challenge; it doesn’t matter what local government area.

It’s a really tough space to work in, but when issues do arise, and using the trees in Berrigan as an example, there are people who are extremely passionate about keeping those trees.

There are other groups in Berrigan that are pretty happy for them to be removed.

It’s like the whole shire — there are a lot of people who are happy their rubbish is picked up, and they can turn their water on.

You put up options and pay your staff to provide you with this advice and take those options to the community to have their say. Then it needs to be implemented.

Often we go backwards and forwards, and it can slow the process.

I encourage people who do have something to say to make sure they get involved at the community consultation, and not come in at the last minute and attempt to change things.

Resources are spent to get to that point and we do value the community input.

The town entry program is something I’m extremely passionate about because it was born out of community meetings five years ago.

We wanted to provide people that aesthetically pleasing view to our community, and to the visitors to our area.

JB: I haven’t come across a lot of critics about you as mayor but if there’s a common complaint it is you sit on the fence too much with important decisions. Do you think that’s a fair comment?

MH: I don’t think I’m a fence sitter; if you ask my wife she’ll tell you I’m not a fence sitter.

I’m not an authoritative person. I’m strong on my opinions but I’m also respectful of trying to listen to other opinions.

I’m only two years into the role as mayor.

I’ve never been the president of an association, I’ve always just been on a committee or ‘worker bee’.

I don’t think my record says I sit on the fence — I say what I believe in.

JB: What do you hope to achieve as mayor and in the next two years?

MH: I just want to continue to promote this area to ‘Live, Work and Invest’ in.

There are things we can’t control such as drought and state and federal issues with water, and there are certain parts of the community trying to work with them to get that sorted.

We do have so many positive things; we have great schools, facilities for our elderly, our hospitals are second to none, our parks and gardens.

There aren’t a lot of things we don’t provide in the Berrigan Shire.

As I said we’re a really progressive shire and I just hope the community, as well as council, can continue to work together to provide the things we need in this small community.

We don’t have all the answers but if we work with our business organisations where we have representation, I’m sure this place will continue to thrive.