Sonya Phillips - Part 2


Interviewee: Sonya Phillips, born 1947

Interviewer: Frank Heimans,
            for The Hills Shire Council

Date of Interview: 17 Dec 2008

Transcription: Glenys Murray, Feb 2009

This interview represents the personal recollections, views and opinions of the interviewee

Is it exhilarating being Mayor?

Tiring the hours it is exhilarating. Just those little things that you can tick off the people you meet just never fail to amaze me. That being in local government I would never have met the people I have met. I would never have had the opportunities to do the things that I’ve done. From footballers to Olympians to just wonderful things. That if you weren’t in the positions of Mayor you couldn’t do. I decided to have a Mayoral Ball, this was the last year that I was Mayor I was going to have a Mayoral Ball. It wasn’t just going to be a Mayoral Ball we were going to have a ball. So it was a masked evening in Venice. It was like a big cabaret I thought “well let’s go all out here”. We ended up having enough money left over without any auctions or anything like that. I was able to give $20,000 to a new foundation here. They’re the feel good things apart from all the strategic stuff you have to do and keeping a balance on the budget and being innovative. Yeah great, great things loved it, wouldn’t have missed a minute of it.

What are some of the best things and some of the worst things of being Mayor?

Some of the worst things I think are not being able to please everyone. Being an independent and not being able to please the political side of the Council from time to time. Actual Mayoral meetings are always interesting because invariably you have to make a decision. This happens on the floor of chamber as well particularly in neighbourhood dispute. You always please one and don’t please the other. I think that’s the down side. Some of the good things are about learning more. Being able to network with people that are inspirational and motivational being able to make a difference. Some of those making differences are not at enormous costs money-wise. I think as I said doing your best, giving it 110% while you’re there. Being a leader despite political differences I still think that in nearly thirty nine, forty years of Council that the Council I served and had the pleasure of leading was probably the most dynamic Council I’ve ever seen. It was robust it was in a time of change. When push came to shove both Labor, Liberal and independent all got together for a better outcome for the community.

Sonya Phillips conducting Pyjama Storytime at Baulkham Hills Library

Now what sort of strategies did you introduce to make the Council more transparent financially Sonya?

I got elected in 2004 on a platform of giving the Council back to the community. So with the support of my Councillors with the majority support of course I was able to introduce an internal audit function to Council. That internal audit function is a bit of a health check on the organisation as well as improving circumstances as far as processes and practices go. We also decided that we would have community members on that committee. So we advertised for the position and we ended up with two retired accountants. One a member of the Labor party and one a member of the Liberal party and that was fine. We worked under a charter. I’m assuming that still will operate. The charter was drawn up by Price, Waterhouse, Coopers. In fact is now a leading document in local government. Most unusual to have community members on an audit committee once upon a time community members would set up a waste watch committee. This is in the heart and soul of what’s going on in Council. The second one was to actually have an in-house lawyer. The reason for this is if you have a stable of lawyers that you can brief as soon as you pick up the phone the clock goes “tick, tick, tick’. You get billed in lots of ten minutes. It takes twenty minutes for them to find out how you’re going and how your golf handicap is etc, etc. So we said we would have an in-house lawyer which has grown. We now have two in house lawyers. We have saved enormously on legal fees. Not only saving but being able to obtain legal advice quickly and expediently in the same day without waiting for a turnaround period. I think there have been a lot of benefits there. The Council is a lot more transparent by the internal audit and of course the annual report outlines the fees that Councillors are paid. What the senior officers are paid and things like that. But just that opportunity and actually putting in that division of Community Development has made the whole thing more open and transparent. We’ve got a fairly young team there now at the bureaucracy level and I think that’s good. They’re all working in synergy together. So it’s about “walking the walk and talking the talk”. I took it very seriously being the Mayor. I was in the office virtually every day and had an open door policy. Whether it be the officers or somebody comes into reception and says “I want to see the Mayor”. If I didn’t have an appointment I’d bring them up and we’d have a cup of coffee and they vent their spleen. Then hopefully they all go away happily.

Castle Hill Library and Community Centre opened 5 Sep 2004

Now Sonya you’ve become pretty famous as the Mayor who made Council debt free how did you manage that?

I built on some really good work that had been done. It was almost debt free when I came on Council. We have been able to maintain that that’s the important thing. We certainly didn’t get caught up in any of the sub-prime markets from America thank goodness. When I was there we had a reasonably conservative investment policy. If you’ve got a lot of money to invest the banks will talk to you. You don’t have to rush off overseas and get caught up in that. As it unfolds and sustainability may become a problem depending on the government because we’re just there at the behest of the State government that may change. But I was very happy to retire leaving the Council in a good financial position. That means rigorous review. We had a budget review every month so we could track exactly where the Council was going. If there was a surplus that month we could allocate it to work that needed to be done.

What would you say were your greatest priorities on the Council as Mayor?

When I got onto Council in 1995 a couple of years before I had identified some community injustices and some things which were pretty depleted which was our library service. I set up a Friends of the Hills Library and we became a bit of a lobby group. That resulted in the library service of Baulkham Hills Council at that time being retrieved back from Parramatta Council. For some obscure reason that I’ve never been able to get to the bottom of our libraries were run under a contract basis by Parramatta Council. Well you can imagine after a number of years the book stock really ran down. We were beginning to become a first home owner’s area because interest rates were down. We had a lot of young people and the libraries were just atrocious. So that was the first thing we took them back from Parramatta. When I was elected I got elected on that platform of giving some new libraries to the community and upgrading all the others. As a result I managed with the support of the majority of the colleagues despite the fact that one Councillor told me “don’t get involved with libraries cause there’s no votes in them”. I did say to him “well look don’t you worry about libraries, I’ll worry about them”. We got a ten year probably twelve or fifteen million dollar library strategy in place. That didn’t include money for two new libraries so I was absolutely delighted that when I was elected Mayor in 2004 the very next month I opened the first new library at Castle Hill. Then this year in March 2008 I opened our second new library at Rouse Hill in the meantime all the other libraries have been renovated and we’re looking at a new strategy. Now people might say “libraries, libraries” well libraries are no longer just a repository for books. They are the hub of the community. People go there to read the paper people go there to get a cup of coffee. Kids go there because it is a safe place parents know that it is a safe place. You can borrow a lot more of course than just books. I think that’s probably my greatest achievement. If you can say that persistence pays off well then that one certainly paid off. We’ve won awards for our library which is great.

It’s a wonderful library, the one at Castle Hill it’s the only one I've seen so far.

Fabulous just fabulous.

Compared to what you used to have in Railway Parade (Street)?

It’s still there unfortunately, but our new strategy may have something different for it.

Vinegar Hill Memorial Library and Community Centre Rouse Hill opened 6 March 2008

You mentioned briefly that the eastern ring road is a ten year programme that is now coming to fruition what involvement did you have in pushing that one.

Well we’d said for years and years “yes it had to happen, yes it had to happen” and nothing happened. So when I became Mayor I asked “why hasn’t it happened? From the point of view there has to be something holding this up. It was determined that one intersection of Cecil Avenue and Old Northern Road there were Telstra pits and things had to be relocated and expanded. That came out at about nine million dollars but it was an intersection that the State government had to undertake the work before we could finish the rest of the ring road. So doing my giraffe act again I said “right oh let’s lend the Government the nine million dollars and we’ll get the work done and they can pay us back over three years”. Everyone threw their hands up I the air “local government doesn’t lend the State government money you’re crazy”. So I said “let’s try it”. So after about two years of twoing and frowing we finally signed the agreement and apart from the nine million dollar intersection the eastern ring road is costing twenty six million dollars. I think probably just thinking outside the square occasionally let’s lend them the money. Let’s get the job done otherwise how do we get our good folk around Castle Hill. How do people coming from north to south transverse Castle Hill? That was an interesting strategy that paid off.

Now you were a little concerned about the fact that the State government canned the railway that was going to be built out here to Rouse Hill?

I think it’s atrocious I’m absolutely disgusted. I met with Minister Watkins a very decent Minister who didn’t last. He guaranteed me the money was in the budget. I don’t know if he was told any mistruths but certainly the community our here were. There’s a corridor that they could use it’s called the M2/M7 corridor that could go all the way to Canberra. It’s not rocket science but no they want to use tunnelling machines that’s going to cost billions of dollars. I don’t think I’ll ever see a railway line in The Hills. I did manage to get an Upper House enquiry which we’re still waiting on the outcome about the way the people in the North West sector are treated. Not only no railway line. For us to travel in and out of the city to work costs after tax over four thousand dollars a year in tolls if you use the M4 or the M5 it costs you less than three hundred dollars because you get cash back.

Detail of activity surrounding The New Rouse Hill (Clockwise: Castlebrooke Cemetary,
Schofields Road, Ironbark Ridge PS, Beaumont Hills, Kellyville Ridge) April 2006

Now if that’s not discrimination against the people in the North West then what is? So I was very fortunate with the help of some Upper House members and the cross benchers to get an Upper House enquiry. The finds are yet to be printed and determined but I unfortunately have no faith in ever getting decent infrastructure to the North West. We have three hundred metres of railway line in a Shire that is nearly four hundred square kilometres. Now Hawkesbury local government area has a railway station. Hornsby has, Parramatta has, Blacktown has. We have one that’s three hundred metres of railway line (Carlingford Station)and I think there’s two trains a day that go to the city. I mean it’s just nonsense and it is discrimination and I’m absolutely disgusted with the way the Government’s treated us.

The whole Rouse Hill development that we are in now was basically sold on the idea that there’d be public transport?

Predicated on the fact that there would be public transport now there is a bus transit way just fifty metres from where I live which is great. It gets me into the city. But these developers came here developed this on Government land with four thousand new homes going in around it on the advice that here would be a railway station. They’ve set aside the land. What does this say to the business community? What does this say to the residential community? That we’re just snubbed every time. I get very annoyed I get quite hot under the collar. The audacity to treat people in this state this way is just mind boggling. I can’t work it out.

Now you’ve had a very interesting aspect to your life in that you at one stage shaved your head in support of the Leukaemia Foundation. Tell me how that all began and what the effect of it was?

This was very interesting I think I must have got caught on the hop with this one but at any rate it was a great cause. The local newspaper The Hills Shire Times rang me up and said “oh we’re getting a team together to shave our heads will you be in on it”? I said “no I won’t”. They said “well what will you do”. I said “well look for ten thousand dollars I’ll dye it pink”. That’s that Cancer Council ribbon pink. They said “oh will you”? I said yes but I don’t want ten one thousand dollar donations. Get a couple of decent donations”. So they said “oh OK you’re in”. So they printed this in the local paper and then the 2GB radio announcer Ray Hadley rang me up and he said “so you’re going to have your hair dyed pink Sonya as the Mayor for ten thousand dollars”. I said “yes sure”. He said “what would you do for twenty thousand dollars”? And I thought O oh and I said “for twenty thousand dollars I’ll dye it pink and have it shaved”. So by the time he went off air he had the twenty thousand dollars and as a result I had to have my hair dyed bright pink. I had it shaved on the Today Show, who donated two thousand dollars, at Channel 9. My hairdresser shaved it. Who said “I’m in the business of doing hair Sonya not shaving it off”. But that was great fun too. We managed to raise just over thirty five thousand for the Leukaemia Foundation. I would do it again I have to say it was a very confronting experience. Very confronting physically the way people treat you but if it can just bring to the attention of people the importance of raising funds for research then it was a good cause.

Packing food for Meals on Wheels delivery at Baulkham Hills Community Centre 2004

Now tell me about your initiative to set up this new division the Community Development Group that you set up?

Yes at that time libraries, health our community care…anything to do with seniors, youth was split up between Corporate Development and the Engineering Department. It seemed quite impractical that you would have libraries which are very much a community focus being under the control of an engineer. With the greatest respect to engineers I’m not sure they know a great deal about the workings of libraries. It was quite obvious that there was a need for a community development section that would act as a catalyst. Not to necessarily provide services but to be able to put people in the direction of the services that could be provided. Now we have like things under like group managers. We have the library under the Group Manager Community Development as well as seniors, youth. The Hills Community Care which is meals on wheels, respite. You’ve got economic development back under Corporate Governance so you’ve got like with like instead of them being a bit split up. It meant a new division in Council it meant a new group manager but I think that works well. The community now knows that’s there’s a whole section in there that looks after them as well as their social needs and building social capital as opposed to “I want my road fixed” I go to the engineer.

This includes aged care centres too does it?

Aged care centres yes we have a Hills Community Care which runs our meals on wheels. Council just got a big grant from the Federal government about one point two five million dollars we’re going into a partnership arrangement with community health to put in a respite centre for dementia patients. We have easy care gardening which is another marvellous innovation. We have home maintenance for people who can’t do their own home maintenance. When I first got onto Council it had a budget of about four hundred thousand it’s now well over three million and it was run by volunteers up until recently. A budget of three million we’ve really got to bring it back under Council’s budget. But certainly the advisory committee is a volunteer advisory committee.

You started off Council’s Heritage Fund?

Oh yes I came back from a trip to Broken Hill and wondered how they managed to have their main street, which is all heritage listed, well decked out in appropriate colours of the time. So I made enquiries they actually had a heritage architect fly up there one every six months for people to chat to. They gave out incentives in the form of funding for people to paint their house in that era. I was thinking about this. We have a number of heritage homes here in the Shire. I was fortunate enough to get about twenty two to twenty four thousand a year as a recurrent expenditure in a budget. We put an advertisement in the paper and people might only get three of four thousand dollars. But it means the difference between being able to paint the picket fence in the right colour of the era of the house or maybe restore a part of a verandah or purchase locks or whatever it is. They go through a rigorous programme. Every year we’ve been able to allocate that fund which is not a huge amount. It is a little incentive for people to continue on restoring their home.

Cottage at 30-34 Showground Rd Castle Hill has received assistance from Council's Heritage Fund

Sonya, are there any issues that you’ve voted on either as a Councillor or a Mayor that you’re not so proud of?

Yes there was probably one that on reflection if I was voting on it now and isn’t hindsight wonderful. I probably would not have voted the way I did. This was the construction of a Muslim house of prayer at Annangrove and it was very interesting. We were inundated with community letters saying that they didn’t want it. Having not had to deal with one before because it was the very first one if you drove past it now that it is built you would have no idea that it is a Muslim house of prayer. It’s not a mosque or anything. It was a very emotive issue in a local government area that’s considered “the Bible belt”. I think I received something in the vicinity of eight and a half thousand letters which is a lot. If you get twenty or thirty that’s quite a considerable number but eight thousand. So I certainly deliberated and dealt with my basics of why I was elected to Council under this banner of Community First. I voted against the Muslim house of prayer which was consequently approved by the Land and Environment Court. On reflection having met the people now I would have voted another way I probably would have supported it. I admire the people that did support it for the reasons that they did. This was not a religious issue with me. It was something that I wrestled with about supporting the community that I had been elected to represent. But since that time the people that have built the house of prayer and indeed I guess financed it and attend there are really, really good citizens they’re fabulous people, they’re great corporate citizens and they run very good businesses in the area. They’re not at all fundamentalists. I think that was a bit of over reaction and if I looked at it again I’d look at it through a different pair of eyes. As I say hindsight is … The others no regrets I don’t live with regrets because it’s a negative energy. I don’t have time for regrets.

So what’s some of the best advice you’ve had from others by being in local government?

The best advice I think is the advice that I can pass onto others. That is to be true to yourself, to do what you honestly believe in. To do an apprenticeship while you’re there give it a 110% and know when to go.

Now you’ve been very vocal in pushing the name change of the Shire from Baulkham Hills Shire to (The Hills)… what motivated you to change the name?

What motivated me was the fact that we were having difficulties with our tourism. You know Baulkham Hills tourism, no that didn’t go. When I chaired the Orange Blossom Festival a long, long time ago the Orange Blossom Festival doesn’t mean anything to people except the people that live here. A lot of the new people who are coming in don’t understand our history as far as the orchards go. So I wanted to change the name of the Orange Blossom Festival to the Festival of the Sydney Hills. That was a bit of bad publicity too. That didn’t work. So here we are venturing into tourism. Venturing into economic development and people saying Baulkham Hills it wasn’t very encompassing when it was called the Baulkham Hills Shire. Because Baulkham Hills in only one of twenty nine suburbs we’re geographically a big area. So we went to our strategic planning workshop and floated the name change to The Hills Shire Council which was really well embraced by everyone. Except one person and his great grandfather had actually named Baulkham Hills so he wasn’t happy and I respect his differences. However the minister was happy with it and so was the governor and it’s now been gazetted as The Hills Shire Council  (14th of November 2008). It places us geographically people always have known us as The Hills. We can now have the Sydney Hills Tourism. There’s a lot of things hang on The Hills as opposed to just Baulkham Hills. So I think this is a step forward. A new image despite the people thinking it’s going to cost a fortune. I don’t think it’s going to cost a fortune. You only replace signs when they need replacing you don’t go out and spend a million dollars on new signs. We had already been working on this for some time with that in mind so I’m pleased that the minister and the governor appreciate it. So it’s The Hills Shire Council. Sutherland can be the Shire, they can be whatever they like, and we’ll be The Hills.

Rural farms in north of The Hills Shire 2005

You think that might be your legacy and the thing that you will be remembered for most?

I think there’ll be a few things. Unfortunately I think getting my head shaved might be one thing that they’re going to remember me for. But in my civic life yes I think probably the name change will be a legacy. Along with the libraries and I think the top three would be the libraries, the name change and certainly the fact that this is the fourth most desirable place in NSW to live. After the Northern Beaches so what can I say “come to The Hills”.

It’s also the second fastest growing local government area in NSW? So what peculiar problems does that bring with it?

Seventy five percent of the Shire is still rural. Many with crown roads, no potable water so that in itself brings a problem managing the rural area against the urban area. People only look at The Hills as Baulkham Hills, Castle Hill, North Rocks, Carlingford they’re very urban areas now Kellyville. Beaumont Hills areas like that where growing quickly brings the challenge of balancing the urban with the rural but also ensuring that when you open your door tomorrow you don’t have a six storey block of apartments alongside of you. Developing a housing strategy where you can build apartments, town houses, villas etc. So that we can maintain the garden shire with single blocks and also have that lung just on our doorstep. Where you’ve still got the Harvest Trail and all those wonderful amenities that come with living on five or ten acres. Having said that there are a lot of people out in the rural area who are asset rich and cash poor and so the pressure is on Council. Why can’t we get that land subdivided? All of those constraints come from the State government. So balancing increased densities with lack of infrastructure is always been challenging. I think we do it reasonably well here. People know where the apartments are, they know which the zoning is that is going to be single dwellings etc. That provides a range of housing to anyone that wants to come and live in this area be it young or old.

Norwest Business Park Aerial View. (Windsor Road in the foreground)

Is the Shire also growing economically, industrially?

Yes I think we’ve got a world class business park here in Norwest. I would say probably the best business park that I have seen anywhere in the world. I did take the opportunity to have a look at them when I was overseas. From the point of view of being able to work and live in that business park is unlike any business park anywhere. Also it being a desirable place to live Council has to be the catalyst to ensure that people come here to be able to work and live in close proximity to their homes. Preferably somewhere where they could walk within five hundred metres to a bus. So that challenge is out there. The Council just before I retired was aggressively marketing itself as a local government area to come and do business. We’ve got two active chambers of commerce that come with Council every step of the way. That’s good, that’s very much a hand in glove relationship.

How do you look back on your career in public life now?

Rewarding as I say forty years of my life has been taken up with local government. I have done a few things on the side. I haven’t become terribly bored with just being in local government as everybody thinks you must be. It’s been exciting. It’s been a great ride, a great ride. Time to move onto the next third of my life but it’s been very gratifying too, to be able to help people in the smallest ways up to the major issues. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it and found it. But I think being positive about what you do and taking those opportunities to do them and not saying “oh well I’m just here keeping the seat warm”. That’s not my style.