The Age: Legal costs mount for councils opposed to East West Link. July 26, 2014, Mark Hawthorne and Aisha Dow
Two Melbourne councils have spent more than $500,000 campaigning against the state government’s marquee East West Link project, and the rising costs of fighting the toll road could cost local councils more than $1.5 million.
Documents obtained by Fairfax Media reveal Yarra City Council alone has amassed more than $400,000 in legal bills and spent a further $75,000 funding the Trains Not Toll Roads grassroots campaign in just nine months.
Moreland City Council has already spent $32,768 on its campaign, with a further $350,000 approved to help fund a legal challenge to Planning Minister Matthew Guy’s decision to approve the $8 billion project.
The councils have joined forces to also challenge the East West Link Assessment Committee’s recommendation the project be approved.
Central to the councils’ legal battle is the government’s refusal to publicly release the business case for the project.
The documents obtained by Fairfax Media reveal $403,943 in legal bills has been paid by Yarra Council to law firm Harwood Andrews, to represent it during this year’s public hearing on the East West Link.
It is believed separate legal expenses racked up by Melbourne City Council fighting the controversial toll road exceed $600,000.
Mr Guy last year criticised Yarra Council for launching an ‘‘ideological war’’ against East West Link, and accused it of ‘‘wasting tens of thousands of dollars of taxpayer money’’ to fight the project.
Yarra mayor Jackie Fristacky has defended the costs, stating local government had a constitutional right to take legal action on behalf of residents.
‘‘Local council is a distinct, essential tier of government; it’s not an arm of the state,” she said. “Our primary obligation is to act in the best interest of our community, and our community is overwhelmingly behind us.”
Cr Fristacky said she stood by all elements of the Trains Not Toll Roads campaign spending, which fell short of the $100,000 council had budgeted for in 2013-2014. She said the costs to her constituents was ‘‘less than $10 per rateable property’’ in the City of Yarra and would not impact on rates.
She also defended some of the unusual costs, such as $330 spent hiring an MC for a rally held last August. “It is an investment in an effective rally. You’ve got to have professionals, we’re not a tinpot organisation,” she said. “We run rings around most government departments, you know, we do things properly.”
Yarra Council said it had run out of 900 front fence signs, 1000 bumper stickers and 500 posters snaffled up by residents, and was down to its last 250 campaign badges, such was the demand.
Mr Guy recently offended Moreland and Yarra councillors when he labelled them “a lot of odd-bods and crazies”.
Moreland mayor Lambros Tapinos said Mr Guy’s comments were an insult.
“I think he ought to be a bit more prudent with his language if he wants to be premier one day,” he said.
Crs Tapinos and Fristacky said it was also their job to advocate on behalf of their community, with the councils campaigning for alternative transport projects such as Doncaster Rail and the extension of the No. 19 tram route to Fawkner.
“Every dollar that is being spent on the East West [Link] is $1 not being spent on local public transport projects,” Cr Tapinos said.