By ERWIN CHLANDA
If sound financial management, transparency and remaining on the case about a youth curfew were Olympic disciplines, mayoral candidate Eli Melky would be scoring a few gold medals.
In his 10 years as an elected member he spent six in a “rolling battle” to make the Town Council free of the debt it incurred building the civic centre.
He says he turned a “tick and flick” approach to finance – so far as the public was concerned – into a monthly statement, open to the public, of every cent spent.
His persistent opposition to much business conducted behind closed doors has yet to succeed but there’s no sign he will give up that fight.
Money is key in his description of the 13th Council, now ending: “We delivered four incredibly balanced conservative budgets. We dealt with a pandemic incredibly well. We collaborated with the government helping people. Our excellent financial management allowed us provide a $5m fund from our reserves to help with hardship claims from residents as well as businesses struck by COVID 19. All that with a zero rate rise.
“This takes financial management experience and I certainly have been consistent in that area,” Cr Melky says in an interview with the Alice Springs News.
“The Council is now free of the $5m debt for 15 years costing $540,000 a year in repayment. That was a very long and gruelling battle. It was achieved in the 12th Council.
“There are things that remain ‘in confidential’ which I am not terribly happy about. In the new council, if I get the support, I’ll be pushing for more transparency.”
The Council has an annual income of about $35m including $27m from 10,000 rate payers, with other income coming from NT Government grants and fees and charges for council services.
“Under the Local Government Act councils cannot budget for a deficit, however if Council were to be in surplus, the money can be re-allocated to other projects as directed by elected members or saved in reserve for later consideration,” says Cr Melky.
The other issue he would not let go of over his ten and a half years on council is a youth curfew. After six attempts over the decades to get support, he has this year clinched the Council’s agreement to support a curfew should the NT Government introduce one.
After what Cr Melky describes as “extensive consultation with community leaders over many years” about the curfews in WA’s Northbridge and SA’s Port Augusta, where he claims the measures are successful, he says: “Children should not be out on the streets and at risk of being involved in crime and anti-social behaviour. They should be cared for by responsible family elders who can provide the support necessary to help young people grow out of harm’s way.”
He says the town has been taken to “breaking point” by youth crime.
With a curfew, “you are not focussing on throwing kids into gaol but on giving them something safer than being on the street.”
He provides no firm costing for the initiative but says cash for this would need to come from the NT and Federal governments with the council providing in-kind support.
Council’s investment would be “my time for bringing people together. It would include existing infrastructure, stadiums and the rangers and other resources currently within our budget, as they are used in the traditional owner patrol”.
Getting a handle on street crime will help turn around the current population decrease, he says, together with the extension of the Charles Darwin University, a retirement village, sporting facilities, staffing support for small business, more residential land (he’s not yet sure where), expanding retail and entertainment – Cr Melky’s wish list, none of it with a price tag.
An orthodox Christian who escaped civil war in Lebanon in 1977, says his own life is a good example of the opportunities provided by Alice Springs.
With his wife of 30 years, Gianna, he “started our small business from nothing to become a successful agency managing residential property with a portfolio value of about $120m in addition to body corporate management looking after 25 unit complexes”.
They have three children, Gabriella (8), Lee (27) and James (24).
Tragic as the global pandemic is, Cr Melky says there can be a glass-half-full approach, coupling sport and tourism, especially now that overseas tourism – either way – is all but ruled out.
“Sports tourism can be its own product and council can play a leading role in ensuring we develop and maintain infrastructure at national standards to support the growth of a sports tourism industry.
“The Olympic Games are coming to Brisbane in 10 years, we can get a piece of that pie by being the perfect location for teams to train in preparation, better than Darwin.
“Cost to council will be limited to the time I would spend in the role of Mayor bringing people together.”
The Council is already heavily involved in sport with the grounds it owns and maintains.
Cr Melky makes it clear that recently surfacing tensions between staff and elected members need to be resolved.
NEWS: Do elected members have complete control over the staff?
MELKY: We have complete control over the CEO and the CEO has complete control over the staff.
NEWS: What are the current library conflicts as you see them?
MELKY: There is no guarantee that $600,000 from the government will be continuing. Challenge two is we have staffing issues that I am not clear on at this point in time. It is confidential and it is operational. As the Mayor I would need to be across more and I would need to assist, provide policy where we can.
NEWS: What about the treatment of the staff?
MELKY: I’m happy to comment on that as a separate story.
NEWS: I’m asking you about the human resources issues in the library.
MELKY: Elected members are not involved. They do not direct staff. That’s a question for the CEO. The law is very clear, the CEO runs the show. But we direct the CEO.
NEWS: What are your instructions to the CEO? What should they be?
MELKY: Well, he needs to create a healthy, productive work environment which he is doing. When you delve into matters that are outside the control of elected members it becomes frustrating. We don’t know enough, we don’t know any of the information as elected members.
NEWS: You have told me the elected members control the CEO.
MELKY: We direct the CEO thorough policy, through lawful directions.
NEWS: What are the lawful directions you are giving him with reference to the library staff? [There are claimed to be] serious issues.
MELKY: I can’t comment on that.
NEWS: There’s activity again in the Mall, yet another CBD revitalisation. What’s happening with the Hub linked to the Alice Plaza?
MELKY: At the moment that’s on hold, it seems, until after the election. We had a meeting [scheduled] with the NT Government [about the Hub] but that meeting didn’t proceed. We’ve run out of time. I’ve been in support of that process, and I can’t speculate what that will look like in the future. I would support it if I were elected.
NEWS: NeatStreets and roadside rubbish. There seems to be activity in just one location of possibly thousands of illegal dumps in the municipality, with some cleaning up happening.
MELKY: NeatStreets is not Town Council funded. But we use it very well and encourage people to do so, and I would collaborate with it. Recently we re-introduced first Saturday every month for free disposal of white goods. I would look at creative incentives to use the waste management facility rather than dumping.
NEWS: What is happening with flood protection. Is there any progress?
MELKY: It certainly is an issue, one in 25 year, one in 50, one in 100 years floods. The council can manage the drains, make sure they are clear, that’s what we are in charge of.
Apart from that is anything else happening about flood protection? Cr Melky indicated there is not.
NEWS: Should the council press the government for improvements to its sewage treatment plant currently taking up two square kilometres of prime land that could be reclaimed for a variety of uses? It wastes billions of litres of water that should be recycled, and the plant emits foul smells.
MELKY: That location would be better used for the growth of our community, absolutely, but it’s a matter for a 50 year asset management plan. As the Mayor I would have opportunity of bringing stakeholders to the table.
NEWS: Charles Darwin University’s local expansion – what comes to mind?
MELKY: Population growth is my number one objective and for the town to grow we need to help young people to stay. The university is part of that.
NEWS: You say we need more residential land. Where?
MELKY: There is no location yet. Darwin has land release after land release. We only had Kilgariff (now being expanded) since Stirling Heights and Mount Johns. More land coming on stream would lower the cost of residential property.
NEWS: Is the waste management facility – the dump – going to be moved?
MELKY: There is a long-term asset management plan for the facility. We do have a plan [to move it]. We have a long term view that there will be a challenge to the space we currently use. The new council will make the decision.
NEWS: How much power does the council have to influence the NT Government?
MELKY: Council is the government closest to the community. We can take its concerns to the government. The power we have lies in listening to the community, and putting its views to the government. We can be the voice of those people. We can also bring government and business together. We are more than roads, rates and rubbish. The pool and the library, social services we deliver, for example, go well beyond these Three Rs. The Solar City is another example. The RRR promoters are holding the community back. They need to open up their horizon.
NEWS: Block voting in Council – the four against five – is there going to be more of it?
MELKY: That’s a legacy of the 13th Council and I don’t see that moving forward into the 14th.
NEWS: Do you have a group of five?
MELKY: I hope to have a group of eight.