Mark Greenhill has been a Blue Mountains City councillor for 17 years, seven of which he has served as Mayor.
In 2016, Cr Greenhill was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) for services to local government and to the Blue Mountains community. When not attending to council matters, he works in industrial relations in the corporate sector.
Blue Mountains Local Government Area covers 140,377 hectares, 74 percent of which consists of national park withing the world-heritage listed Greater Blue Mountains area. It comprises 27 towns and villages spread along 100km of mountainous terrain dividing Sydney and the NSW central west.
What drew you to public service in local government?
Back in 1995 there was a development application behind my dear mum’s house which I thought was inappropriate. I might have been wrong about that, but that was what I was thinking at the time.
My opposition to that drew me into contact with council and that led to me seeking Labor pre-selection and running and ultimately being elected.
It wasn’t a career thing or anything like that. I already had another career … it was that I felt that there was a “straying away” from appropriate development in my home in the Blue Mountains.
It was literally a commitment to appropriate development in what was and is a very sensitive environment.
What does your typical mayoral working day look like?
In my time on council, there have been two very significant bushfire events in the Blue Mountains. In 2013 we lost nearly 200 homes, and the 2019-20 fires affected over 80 percent of the Blue Mountains National Park and destroyed over 20 homes.
When those things are happening, your days are very atypical.
But a typical day would be that I would get up very early, go into to my corporate day job in the city, come back and then attend several meetings of an evening, and walk in the door at 10pm or 10.30 at night, only to get up at 5.30 the next day and do it all again.
Basically, I work nights and weekends fulfilling my mayoral duties. But I am also on call so if anything comes up during the day, our CEO is able to get me quickly and we can make decisions together over the phone.
What aspect of the job do you like best of all?
My seven years of being Blue Mountains mayor have been dominated by massive bushfire events and long and drawn-out recovery processes.
Leading the recovery processes from those events, helping people put their lives back together, and seeing them resettled in their homes are the two most rewarding things from my time in local government.
The inspiration you draw from communities in extremis – their unity of purpose and their individual and collective bravery – that has been a very rewarding part of the job.
Are there any aspects of being mayor that you would be happy to let go?
When I was first elected 1999, it didn’t exist. Social media is important and a very useful tool for communicating with the community. But you must be careful with social media to remember that not all of your constituents are on it.
It represents key demographics, but not all demographics.
You cannot let social media dominate good policy thinking, either, and this can happen if it distracts your focus from socio-economic groups that are not on it or haven’t adapted to it as others have.
You made the point earlier that the Blue Mountains is vulnerable to bushfires.
Yes, it is the one of the most bushfire prone communities in Australia. We’re a city within a World Heritage Area surrounded on either side by deep forested ravines. It’s a very, very bushfire-prone community.
So what can be done about future disaster preparedness and mitigation when indications are the climate is becoming hotter and drier?
Firstly, we have got to recognise the climate change is real. And that means – and we learned this with the 2019-20 fires, but also with the 2013 fires – we have got to be geared up for fire seasons that are far more extreme than previous seasons.
We saw fires burning against the wind in the last bushfire season in the Blue Mountains because the climate was so extreme, so dry.
The conditions were such that experienced firefighters had never seen anything like it before. So, understanding that resourcing around bushfires has got to be far greater than it ever has been. And to act on climate change.
In the short term, we must gear up for fire seasons unlike any others we’ve faced. The longer-term imperative is to urge governments to take action on climate change.
The coronavirus pandemic has played havoc with council finances. What can be done longer-term to ensure local government funding is adequate to provide the services residents, businesses and communities expect.
We went through the bushfires and straight into Covid-19. The Blue Mountains is a wholly tourist-oriented economy, so the economic impact on our community was severe.
Some rural economies have got tourism and agriculture. We are just tourism, so we’re very exposed.
I would say communities like ours have got to diversify a bit economically.
But when it comes to recovery processes, my strong advice to federal and state governments is fund local governments to create jobs.
If we are directly funded to undertake agreed capital projects, we can use the fact that our overheads are far lower than state governments to create jobs, particularly for younger people, with apprenticeships and things like that.
Funding local government directly to undertake agreed capital works utilising our lower overheads can readily create jobs and stimulate the local economy.
The other thing about funding local government directly is that local government is on the ground. We understand where capital works can create the most bounce-off effect for other economic activity.
Is there a particular project that you worked on during your time on the Blue Mountains council that has brought your particular satisfaction?
Oh yes. Absolutely. Our local environment plan. The latest one is an awesome document, and I took great pride in that.
Also, being part of the council that assisted in bringing about the World Heritage listing. I was standing there in the forest in Blackheath when the Commonwealth Government declared us a World Heritage Area … those are two projects that I take a great deal of delight from.
Would you recommend to other people serving on local government?
I would. [But] I’d ask them to go in with their eyes wide open.
You’re on duty 24/7, and you don’t have your own private staff to support you like a Member of Parliament would.
Presently in NSW, state governments are less supportive of local governments than was the case when I first entered the sector all those years ago, so don’t anticipate that you will necessarily get the level of support you might hope for.
Overall, it’s a very rewarding experience and I would recommend it as long as people go in with their eyes are wide open.
One other point I would make is this: if you’re a would-be politician don’t see local government necessarily as a stepping stone. See it as important end in and of itself.
That is not say talented people in local government shouldn’t aspire to other levels, but please don’t see it solely as a career platform.
Do you have a favourite place you like to get away to for recreation or to recharge the batteries?
There is nothing quite like being on the edge of the Echo Point in the Katoomba area of the Blue Mountains and watching the colours of the Three Sisters change as the sun goes down. That’s a pretty awesome experience.
Other than that, time with my beautiful children. That is the best pastime of all.