Council elections 2021: Meet the candidates in Balmain-Baludarri

Darling Street, Balmain. Picture: Geoff Jones
Darling Street, Balmain. Picture: Geoff Jones

Five groups are contesting the Balmain-Baladurri ward, and with one siiting councillor - Greens Mayor Rochelle Porteous - retiring, it is guaranteed to deliver one new face to council after the December 4 election.

Balmain-Baladurri has a population of just under 40,000, and covers the suburbs of Balmain, Balmain East, Birchgrove, Rozelle, Lilyfield and part of Annandale.

Its residents have been pounded by WestConnex construction while another major state government infrastructure project, the upcoming Western Habour Tunnel construction, is a source of dread for residents. The future of Callan Park and Bays West Place Strategy are two more big-ticket items that have aspiring councillors talking about the need for strong council advocacy on behalf of residents.

Two seasoned councillors in John Stamolis and Darcy Byrne are re-contesting, and are joined by three new contenders. Kobi Shetty is the new lead Greens candidate, and policy consultant Jack Robertson is standing as an Independent and drew fifth place on the ballot.

Wenjie Zhang - Independent

Chinese medicine practitioner Wenjie Zhang (pictured, who tops the ballot paper for Balmain and was not available to be interviewed for this ward profile) stood for the Liberal Party in the seat of Balmain in the 2019 state election, but is standing as an Independent on December 4 after the Liberal Party decided not to endorse candidates in the inner west LGA.

Mr Zhang has lived in the council area for more than 27 years and describes himself as passionate about helping people in the community. His running mates are Funing Guo and Jie Yao.

John Stamolis - Independent

John Stamolis is a statistician who worked for the Australian Bureau of Statistics for 20 years and raised his family in Balmain, where he has lived since 1986. He is standing for council election as an Independent for the fifth time since 2008, having been unsuccessful in one election (2012) during that time before returning to council in a 2014 byelection.

Running mates:

Tracey Brooks and Kathleen Hacking

Good to know:

Cr Stamolis is firmly opposed to party politics at the local government level, which in the inner west means independents have to fight against the "cashed up" inner-city parties, he says. He has served the Balmain community for 24 years not only on the Leichhardt and then inner west councils, but on committees such as the Balmain White Bay Precinct Committee, Friends of Callan Park and the Back to Balmain Committee.

Stance on de-amalgamation:

Cr Stamolis was one of the two councillors who put forward the original motion to give inner west residents a say on deamalgamation. "The motion is about asking you what you want - how I vote is immaterial," he says.

Why he's running:

With seven out of the 10 sitting Labor and Green councillors not standing for re-election, Cr Stamolis believes that retaining experience is going to be important on the council given the influx of new faces.

"Hopefully the three independents, Pauline Lockie, myself and Victor Macri, offer that, and we also contribute diversity to the council, which is very important," he says. He is also determined to change the council's leadership and culture. "The past four years were simply devastating for our council and our community.

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"It was played out in the media, and in the delivery of services, and that must not and cannot continue ... we've got to move forward with new leadership, new culture, and we are not going to do the first four years again."

He also believes there has been a lack of focus on financial management among councillors that "needs to change".

"Excellence in financial management drives council's ability to deliver the progressive values of council. We can do more things, as well as existing things better, if councillors take their financial responsibilities seriously."

Priorities:

Cr Stamolis says he will work towards having a well-functioning council, and a well-functioning leadership body that demonstrates transparency and accountability and brings the community in to the process.

"The fundamental thing that I have always wanted to do is make sure that the community voice is strong on council - I want to make sure there are forums, committees, processes and a range of them so that residents can interact; if the website approach is the only approach, it is a very weak one - no single forum is the answer to community engagement; we must have multiple methods."

Cr Stamolis is a staunch believer in keeping his constitutents informed and prides himself on commonsense voting that is "well-researched and analytical".

"The wonderful thing about being an independent is that 95 per cent of my ideas that have kept John Stamolis elected, have come from the residents - they are not party platforms; you tell me what your issues are, I hope I listen well enough, and what I would always hope to do is carry your wishes forward before I carry my own personal opinions forward."

Kobi Shetty - Greens

Greens candidate Kobi Shetty worked in fraud prevention in the banking industry and is studying a degree in community development and sustainability.

Running mates:

Michael Davis and Jennifer Barron

Good to know:

Ms Shetty is a mother of three young children and has been a community campaigner against WestConnex, and in support of refugees, climate action, tree protection and fairer parking.

Stance on de-amalgamation:

Supports it, in line with Greens policy. "A lot of residents feel there has been a real loss of the ability to get involved, that they have been shut out. If the vote comes back as a no, we need to respect that and work with what we already have to find better and easier ways to make sure that we get their voices heard."

Why she's running:

"I have been here for about 10 years, and I feel like I have been really embraced by the community, so a big part of the reason I am running is wanting to give back to them, and to make sure the people who live here who are really busy with their jobs and their lives and their kids all know what is happening around them and for me to be that person who can keep them informed, and make sure they get a chance to say what they think," Ms Shetty says.

"I also want to see more climate action from all levels of government, so am really keen to make sure that the inner west is really sustainable and setting an example for other people and other governments around the country."

Priorities:

Ms Shetty says there has been a real decline in services and subsequently there is now a need to get the basics right - to make sure streets are clean and people get their rubbish picked up. She would also like to see more recreational facilities, such as skate parks and bike tracks, for older kids.

As an avid bike rider herself, improving bicycle infrastructure is also on her list. "We need to get some safe, connected cycleways around the inner west," she says. "It's a really good outcome for the community if we get more people on bikes and out of their cars, which will mean less traffic, less pollution and fewer parking issues - and parking is always a challenge on the peninsula."

Restoring the historic Balmain Town Hall is another priority: "There has been no significant work on it for over a decade and it is really starting to look worse for wear ... and if we don't try and look after it now, it is going to be much more expensive down the track."

And Ms Shetty says council must be a strong advocate for residents in the Balmain ward as construction of the Western Harbour Tunnel looms. "There has been such a great deal of impact from Westconnex that a lot of residents are very nervous about the additional impacts of another big infrastructure project. There is going to be a lot of extra heavy vehicle traffic, lots of other tunnelling under houses, and we are losing one of our nice parks in Birchgrove for quite a few years and the Birchgrove ferry stop. All of that is causing a lot of stress and if we don't get involved in advocating for the residents then the state government will just steamroll us.

"I also see council's role as making sure they are doing their own environment impact studies and getting their own expert advice to be able to help residents navigate the impacts."

Darcy Byrne - Labor

Labor candidate Darcy Byrne will stand for mayor if he wins election. He was first elected to Leichhardt Council in 2008 and was the last Leichhardt mayor before amalgamation, and the inaugural Inner West Council mayor. He was re-elected as mayor in 2019, but was ousted from that position three months out from the 2021 election.

Running mates:

Adele Tahan and Jack Whitney

Good to know:

Father of two primary school-aged children, Cr Byrne grew up in Balmain and is a former staffer of Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese. He is the only candidate to have declared outright that he will run for mayor if re-elected.

Stance on de-amalgamation:

Does not support it, but recognises that the past four years have been "very hard". "The amalgamation has been disruptive and challenging for the community, for the councillors and for the council staff, and it was not something that any of us chose," he says.

If the majority votes for demerger, "I will be a strong advocate for it - but it is not something we have the legal power to do."

Why he's standing:

"I like direct public service and being able to advocate on behalf of local people to solve problems, even sometimes small or quite microscopic problems, but which have a real impact on people's lives," he says. "It is not glamorous, but it is really important work.

"I also think the inner west is a special place and I want us to be ambitious about what our community can achieve and represent into the future."

Priorities:

"There has really only been one issue on the agenda for everyone in the inner west, NSW and Australia, and that has been the pandemic and the lockdown: how we are going to recover and reconnect our community is still the major concern that people have," Cr Byrne says.

"I think it is really important to have a detailed plan to how we are going to make sure that 2022 is a better year in the inner west than 2021."

For Cr Byrne, that includes a proposed summer film festival where films are screened every Saturday night in different parks across the LGA. It also involves fostering an alfresco culture through opening more outdoor dining spaces, and supporting the local arts and music sector to get back up and running - primarily through activating dozens of new industrial and main street venues if the state government approves a proposal to do so.

He says there is renewed awareness in the community about the importance of looking after pools, parks and recreational facilities, and that the local Labor team is proposing a $10 million investment to renew the Olympic pool at Leichhardt Aquatic Centre.

He says many people he talks to in Balmain ward are also concerned to make sure that the park that has been promised to replace the WestConnex construction site in Rozelle actually comes to fruition. "People need something positive to look forward to at the end of two years of massive disruption ... I fought hard to make sure there is now $15 million available from Transport NSW for the creation of the park, but the engineering advice is it will probably cost about twice that," he says.

Jack Robertson - Independent

Jack Robertson, an Independent running for council for the first time, has lived in Balmain for 22 years, and works part-time as a policy consultant for the centre-left social and infrastructure think thank the Western Sydney Leadership Dialogue.

Good to know:

Mr Robertson, father to a 15-year-old son who attends the local high school, has a work background that ranges from 10 years as an Army helicopter pilot to university administration, freelance journalism, acting, washing dishes, delivering newspapers and disability care. He was also a stay-at-home dad for five years.

Most recently, he has written policy papers on local government issues such as urban heat mitigation. "I am very curious about everything," Mr Robertson says. He is also bass guitarist in local "daggy dads band" the Grateful Dads.

Stance on de-amalgamation:

Will be voting no to a demerger. "It is just not a realistic prospect, however well-meaning we are, and I think there is a lot of confusion about what people are voting for," he says. "If we do vote yes, that commits the new council in the next couple of years to building a business case which will be distracting and potentially divisive - and the decision will be the State Government's any way.

"On the positive side of not demerging, there is more staff expertise in a bigger council, and provided it is a unified council, it gives you more grunt and more negotiating power on significant state projects."

Why he's running:

"I've always been politically engaged, and I always wanted to try [running for office]; it's very easy to throw rocks at politicians.

"Apart from that, I really do love this part of the world and coming out of COVID, we have to look forward and get upbeat and positive, and I am that sort of bloke."

As well, he says people are "a bit fed up with the politicking and the infighting with our three ward representatives ... they have struggled to work together obviously. I would be able to work with all three of those candidates, because they are all decent people."

Priorities: 

Mr Robertson wants to tackle climate change at the local level "in a very practically oriented way that tries to bring everyone along in the tent". He says he has spent years trying to figure out how to get the polarisation out of the climate change debate and get people on board in a "working bee-style approach".

"There are a million practical policy things you can do at the council level, especially a bigger council with so much good technical staff - you can bypass the politics of it, you can get people on board just as a practical problem-solving exercise."

When it comes to the major developments and issues impacting his ward such as WestConnex, the Western Harbour Tunnel, Callan Park's future and traffic congestion on the Balmain peninsula, he believes innovative thinking must rule the day.

"My approach to all of the big projects is to say, by all means where necessary dig your heels in and fight like hell." But, if that doesn't work, "it is really important to say, What can we get out of it, how can we absolutely make sure that we leverage some positive stuff out of it."

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