Proud of where we’ve come
WHITSUNDAY mayor Jennifer Whitney is ready for the fight of her life come election day on March 19.
Already she’s up against her deputy, Andrew Willcox, and this week a fresh contender, Eric Oliver, has thrown his hat into the ring.
And Cr Whitney has some demons from her own term of council to lay to rest.
An unpopular ratepayer levy and a constant “blame game” unwittingly became part of her legacy when just months after winning the top job in 2012 she discovered the council was “broke”, committed to five major projects it couldn’t afford and in debt to the government for flood damage works believed to be “out of scope”.
But now having turned this whole situation around, and in the lead-up to the election of 2016, Cr Whitney has spoken out, defending the tough decisions of the past four years and officially launching her mayoral campaign.
“I’m standing again because I’d like the community to see what I can really deliver rather than just proven leadership and sound financial management,” she said.
Since winning the election of 2012 Jennifer Whitney has been on a rollercoaster ride – at times through the depths of financial despair.
She hadn’t been in the top job for long when the announcement came that “we couldn’t deliver projects, our reserves were empty, there was no cash and we were having to repay out-of-scope flood damage works”.
By her own admission, she was part of the former administration immediately held responsible for the mess, but she always maintained herself and the others at the boardroom table had been kept in the dark.
Nonetheless, “I had a very good idea we were up around $100 million in debt,” she said.
“The writing was on the wall and there was no option but to embrace that and look for solutions – how do we get out of it, how do we keep our 350 staff, how do we deliver for the community?”
So Cr Whitney went to Brisbane to “fight our case” with the Queensland Treasury Corporation (QTC).
“And we didn’t have an option (but to pay the money back),” she said.
“People say ‘the mayor rolled over’ – well the mayor didn’t roll over, the federal and state governments came in. It’s as simple as that.”
Finding herself at the helm of a suddenly sinking ship, Cr Whitney was forced to implement tough and unpopular measures but, four years on, she says these have paid off.
“The community might not have liked it but it has actually put us in a good position,” she said, adding debt reduction on this scale and in this timeframe was “almost unheard of” and now recognised as a considerable achievement by the upper echelons of government.
“In 2012 we were the poster kids on how not to run a local government, how not to do flood damage and now we’re up there with the best and I’m proud we’re respected by government and our peers,” she said.
“Unfortunately we’ve never been able to get the message out about all of our great achievements but I think if the community understood where we’ve come from they’d be astonished.”
While the finances may finally be in a better state, there’s been little chance for Cr Whitney to spruik her achievements as other controversies such as the proposed Airlie Beach Chinatown development and increased building heights crept in. And these controversies she says, have been “driven by councillors in the boardroom”.
“It’s politics and unfortunately Bowen has a lot to say about Airlie Beach moving forward right now,” she said.
So where does the current mayor really stand on building heights?
“I would not like to see any more than four storeys on the waterfront,” she said.
“But I also believe the opportunity to grow the region is in the whole of the Waterson Way triangle because it’s actually two storeys underground – lower than the rest, so with eight stories all you would see is six.
“You’ve got to identify an area where the growth can occur otherwise nothing will happen.”
As for criticism over her relationship with the investors interested in Chinatown, Cr Whitney had this to say:
“My role as mayor is to meet with any potential investors and engage with them and we’re working with a range of overseas and domestic groups at the moment over the whole of our region.”
Sick of the “mud-slinging” Cr Whitney says “enough is enough”.
“I know I was the best person for the job when I came in. I had the experience and the knowledge to get us out of the mess we were in and I’m now putting myself up to deliver for the community,” she said.
HARD YARDS: Whitsunday mayor Jennifer Whitney says she's done the hard yards, made the tough decisions, copped the flak and should now have the chance to deliver the rewards.
READY TO GO AGAIN: Jennifer Whitney is running for mayor for another term.