‘Confronting’: Residents weigh in on Coober Pedy future

Frustrated locals in Coober Pedy have criticised the outback town’s administrator and put forward suggestions for future governance at a community meeting with the Local Government Minister and state Ombudsman.

Aug 25, 2022, updated Aug 25, 2022
Coober Pedy. Photo: Stephanie Richards/InDaily

Coober Pedy. Photo: Stephanie Richards/InDaily

Local Government Minister Geoff Brock on Wednesday returned from the far north town after attending a public meeting with “about 100 people” to discuss the future of the Coober Pedy District Council, which has been suspended since January 2019 and still has more than $10m in debts to pay off.

The state government is moving next month to put the council into administration for another four years and establish a multi-agency taskforce, led by the Department of Premier and Cabinet, to examine the town’s problems.

The community meeting heard presentations from Brock, Ombudsman Wayne Lines and the Office of Local Government.

Brock said it was “not easy getting in front of a frustrated crowd” and there was “a lot of passion” among locals.

“It’s confronting, it’s a challenge because at the end of the day people want to express their frustration and also their uncertainty, which they did [on Tuesday] night,” Brock told InDaily.

“But they’ve also suggested lots of ideas of how they themselves, the community, because they live here, how we can move forward with this.

“So I’m taking that on board and I’ll put that back to all my colleagues in the cabinet.”

Among the suggestions on the table, and called for by the council’s administrator Tim Jackson, is for the state government to buy up Coober Pedy’s energy and water assets, worth between $12m and $14m.

Brock has previously indicated the DPC taskforce will recommend whether that course of action is appropriate.

He also said residents at the meeting were broadly supportive of extending the council’s suspension as an elected body.

“We had the Ombudsman up here to explain the role his office had played over the last few years… and then we had the Office of Local Government to explain to people the process and the legality of the process so far,” Brock said.

“There was a lot of passion there in the community, they just wanted to have some communication, explanation about the direction.”

He also said he met with council workers to “give them some security and reassurance that we’re going in the right direction”.

“They were a bit concerned about the opportunity for their future employment, because the administrator has indicated… that they may dispose of the water system, which is operated by council at the moment,” Brock said.

“But no decision has been made in any direction, that’s why I just explained to them about the high-ranking task force I’ve been able to establish.”

Coober Pedy District Council still faces debts of more than $10m to various creditors including the Local Government Financing Authority and energy company EDL.

Jackson, who has already indicated his intention to leave as administrator after more than three years in the role, said community polling conducted in 2019 indicated narrow support for selling off Coober Pedy’s utilities.

The broader issue here is the future of Coober Pedy, it’s not just about the council, and the state government perhaps needs to put a fair bit more in a lot of areas.

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He said a job guarantee for existing council utility workers would be a condition of any asset buyup.

“We will not be selling them unless those people’s roles are retained and their conditions of employment,” Jackson said.

“If they were sold off, obviously whoever would own it would need a workforce – and we’ve got a really good workforce… I told the Minister that yesterday.”

Jackson said he “didn’t sense there was any real opposition”  to continuing the council’s administration at Tuesday’s meeting, although some residents were hoping a new administrator would replace him.

“There were a number of people that were very very vocal and quite negative, particularly towards me in terms of my performance,” Jackson said.

“That occupied a lot of the evening.

“There was a range of issues, I don’t think it was just council issues that were raised.”

Jackson said he hoped the terms of reference for the DPC taskforce would allow it to explore a wider range of problems within the town.

“The broader issue here is the future of Coober Pedy, it’s not just about the council, and the state government perhaps needs to put a fair bit more in a lot of areas,” he said.

“We’ve still got the worst domestic violence rate in the state… our health system needs a lot of attention… transportation, horrendous cost of airfares.

“All those issues came up, and they’re not council matters – they’re for the state government to try and deal with.”

Brock is due to return to Coober Pedy in late October.

Legislation to extend the council administration and establish the Coober Pedy Taskforce will be introduced in the first sitting week of parliament next month.

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