Mr West Tamar bows out

WHEN you start to refer to your former colleagues as the "late", you could probably be assured you've had a good run.

And that's the way it is for Barry Easther, Local Government Association of Tasmania president and West Tamar mayor who after 31 years has decided not to recontest the local government elections in October.

Cr Easther, who will be 74 in October, received an Order of Australia Medal in 2009 for services to local government and the community, earning widespread admiration - and recognition - when he was thrust into the spotlight as the face of the West Tamar during the Beaconsfield mine disaster in 2006.

For a man who is one of Tasmania's longest-serving councillors, however, Cr Easther does not have a mayoral desk.

Due to his need to travel between council offices, he prefers to work from his office at home.

Cr Easther said he never imagined in 1983 when he was first voted to Beaconsfield Council, before it was renamed West Tamar in 1993, that he would still be on the council today.

He has retained pretty strong support throughout his time and although there have been other nominees who ran against him over the years, he was elected mayor unopposed in 2007 and 2009.

He has been mayor for almost 18 years.

"I never set out to make records," he said.

"The first election was interesting.

'There were two vacancies as the deputy warden - the late Brendan Manion - his term had expired and he was up for election and Cr Mel Prophet, the late Mel Prophet, resigned from council before her term had expired.

"And so that's when I stood.

"The voting system then was first past the post, so it didn't matter how many number twos I got, they didn't really count, I had to seek people's number one count.

"I can't remember what the results were, but I know Brendan was elected and I came second."

Cr Easther credits his wife, Jan, and their friend, Pat Harman, who were both then community nurses advocating for him.

These were the days when Tasmania had 46 councils, Beaconsfield Council had a warden not a mayor and there were two meetings a month - one that ran from 9am through to about 6pm and another that went from 6pm to midnight.

"Now, I'm not sure what we did - I think we must have chipped every weed out of every footpath and filled every pothole," Cr Easther said.

"It was just amazing the stuff we dealt with until things changed in 1993 when the new Local Government Act was introduced.

"This meant the general manager, the chief executive, and the mayor no longer had that responsibility," Cr Easther said.

He said amalgamations and to remain independent were always at the top of the mind for West Tamar Council, to the extent that it sponsored a yacht in the Australian Three Peaks Race during the 1990s called Hands Off West Tamar, as well as printing T-shirts with the same slogan.

"It was very important, very topical at the time," he said.

"West Tamar councillors were very passionate about it and they remain so today.

"We don't speak about it very much, but whenever the 'A' word is raised, we get into the defensive mood."

Cr Easther said there probably was scope to reduce the number of councils from 29, but not include West Tamar.

"And I say not West Tamar because I know how well run West Tamar Council is and how viable we are, how sustainable we are and how responsible we are in looking after our finances," he said.

"We work really, really well as a team, as a team of councillors, the management team work very well together and combined, elected members and the management team are a force to be reckoned with."

In regards to Northern council amalgamations Cr Easther said: "There's always talk about a Tamar Valley Council and you know, where as it might make sense, my ratepayers say to me, 'Whatever you do, don't amalgamate with Launceston.' "

"I think inevitably in the years to come, there will be fewer councils in Tasmania.

"I think it will be brought about mainly because in some areas they will find it difficult to remain sustainable - that will be the thing that makes it occur."

Cr Easther said while equipment resource sharing between West Tamar and George Town councils "didn't work", he believed councils should get more serious about it and there were many areas that it could happen, such as with IT staff.

The biggest projects he has overseen in his time include the $17 million development of the Windsor Park precinct, incorporating community sporting facilities and rooms, with a cafe, gallery space and private practices.

All of which he said are fully leased and the facility costs nothing to the ratepayer now.

The other big project was the establishment of the Beaconsfield Mine Heritage Centre, which was partially funded by the federal government through a community grant after 2006.

And although they were short of funding his "Dear John letter" to then prime minister John Howard on the eve of 2007 federal election, the council did receive an additional $300,000.

Cr Easther said one of his most memorable moments also came out of the tragedy, when he was asked to address Mr Howard, Opposition Leader Kim Beazley and Beaconsfield residents in the Great Hall at Parliament House after they had all been flown to Canberra on specially chartered flights.

He said his 31 years have been primarily incident free and if you were ever unhappy about a decision made, "by the time you walk out the door it's all over, it's finished".

Although there was a period when factions were common on West Tamar, "As the late Michael Hodgman would say, he was a member of his majesty's loyal opposition, I say that of myself when I was amongst a group of councillors who didn't have the majority in council.

"But that didn't last for long and it's all water under the bridge."

"I must say, when I became president of the Local Government Association, I got a surprise that not all councils operated the same way as West Tamar."

Cr Easther became LGAT president in 2009 for an initial two-year term, which will also come to an end when the local government elections are held.

At the recent LGAT conference dinner, he was presented with life membership from the association, which he described as a "privilege".

Cr Easther said he didn't have any tips for who might run for the council but he understood there was a lot of interest.

As for his old election corflutes, his grandkids are quite keen to use them to make forts in the backyard.

"People say to me the electorate isn't silly, yet they must be if they've elected me on many occasions - but I appreciate that and I know I've been privileged to be an elected member and mayor for so long.

"It's been fantastic."


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