Proud of where we’ve come

Whitsunday Times - - FRONT PAGE -

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.

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