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Lower Portland Ferry Forgotten and Mismanaged by Council, Now Suspended from Jan 29

Dec 8, 2023

SPECIAL INVESTIGATION

When Lower Portland Ferry contractor Tono Group wrote to Hawkesbury City Council’s (HCC) procurement officer Gordon Sainsbury on July 11 this year, it was clear that council had no idea that its contract expired barely three weeks later.

HCC had failed to issue a tender for a new contract to operate the ferry, nor had they made any plans for critical maintenance required under regulations to keep the ferry operating beyond April 2024. Additionally, the council had made no plans, in the event of any maintenance, for a loan ferry.

The ferry is a critical road for residents, emergency services and tourists. It joins the Hawkesbury and Hills  council districts  who jointly fund the ferry, while HCC manages its operations. Now the ferry will be pulled out for maintenance for 12 weeks during peak bushfire and tourist season, potentially placing lives and livelihoods at risk.

The latest update from HCC is that the ferry will now be suspended from January 29 for 12 weeks. In accordance with Australian Maritime Safety Regulations, Lower Portland Ferry is required to undergo an out-of-water service to retain its commercial license for operating a public service.

Emails between council management and the ferry’s operators in July show that the vital link had been completely forgotten by council management. This mismanagement would be comical if it was not so serious. 

“I am writing to discuss the temporary service arrangement with regards to our contract which expires on Aug. 5”, a Tono Group executive (name redacted) wrote to Sainsbury on July 13. The subsequent responses show this was a surprise to both Sainsbury and his superiors in the council.

A flurry of emails between HCC and Tono followed in the next four days, haggling over how much HCC would pay Tono for running the service  –  and for how long – after August 5. After Tono’s final offer on July 17 HCC was silent for eight days, not responding until July 25, less than two weeks before the ferry’s operations were due to cease.

In that July 25 email, council had finally realised that the ferry needed urgent statutory maintenance and a replacement ferry should have been planned. It even tried to stop paying the ferry’s operating staff during the maintenance period.

Fed up, Tono then issued a searing response saying it would walk away:

“Dear Gordon,

Being the current contractor you would have thought that I would have been informed that the ferry was going to be overhauled this year. That is not the case.

If I did not contact you in regards to the tender expiration date we would not even be having this conversation. It is disappointing that council didn’t have a tender ready nor have any intention of notifying the operator of the situation.

Given the current economic environment, leaving staff without any form of income, whilst the ferry is out of service for a period of three or four months is appalling. This type of conduct certainly brings councils integrity and business ethics into question and may likely cause some media attention.

Given the circumstances I’m not in a position to operate the ferry beyond the expiration date of the current contract. We will be notifying staff tomorrow.

Regards.”

This situation escalated to HCC finance chief Vanessa Browning, who called an emergency meeting with council infrastructure chief WIll Barton and Tono on August 1, just 4 days before Tono would walk away and the ferry would stop running. Backed into a corner, council accepted Tono’s new higher prices for one more year, just three days before its current contract ended – conveniently kicking the issue beyond next year’s Council elections.

The next blow would come two weeks ago when, only after inquiries from the Hawkesbury Post, HCC said the ferry would finally go into maintenance on Jan 15, the last possible moment before its operating certificate expires in April.

By then, there was never any chance of a loan ferry. Transport for NSW (TfNSW) flatly rejected claims by HCC that a replacement ferry was not available to them. In a statement TfNSW told the Hawkesbury Post that it offered HCC a replacement ferry, but due to Council’s inaction it failed to take up the offer in time. 

A replacement ferry would have secured safe passage for emergency services and residents during bushfire season, and also spared them of the economic pain they will endure without a ferry service. Now for 12 weeks from Jan 15 the ferry will not operate. While the council seems unconcerned that this is during peak bushfire and tourist season, locals have seen things differently.  

“The council can’t close this ferry during fire season, lives could be lost,” local resident Darren Osmotherly, whose business runs houseboats and the Paradise Cafe and Pizzeria at the Lower Portland Ferry Wharf. “We also get 75% of our business from the other side of the river, after the floods and COVID this will be another hit to our business,” he said.

Hill’s Mayor Dr Peter Gangemi and Hawkesbury Mayor Sarah McMahon pose for a photo opportunity defending their management of the ferry.

Hills Council shares the financial cost of the ferry, while HCC manages, or rather mismanages, its operation. Mayor Sarah McMahon’s opposite number at Hills Shire Council, Dr Peter Gagnemi, is playing nice publicly but is said to be far less enthusiastic about his fellow Liberal in private. The Hawkesbury Post understands that there was pressure brought to bear on Hills to stump up another year’s funding. The ferry costs about $500,000 a year to run.

Concerningly, once the decision was made, emergency services were not notified that the ferry would be out of service. 

“The RFS had not been informed of the closure, however, there are brigades on both sides of the river to ensure timely response to incidents”, a Rural Fire Service spokesperson told the Hawkesbury Post. NSW Ambulance said it “may take alternate routes via road or dispatch a helicopter to respond.”

The closure of the ferry for about three months will be problematic for ambulances. To give one example, a recent boat crash at Lower Portland required ambulances to use the ferry. The alternative route, using the government run Sackville ferry, takes an extra 40 minutes, precious time in an emergency.

“I was a local of Lower Portland. Also witnessed many times that the Lower Portland ferry saved lives, especially when the Sackville ferry is out of service”, Facebook user Kathy Anthony said.  “Let the Mayor, Councillors on both sides of the river be on the wrong side when they need the ferry service, the time they need an ambulance, the fire brigade or the police. But they have to go around to get to the other side.”

More than 500 people live in Lower Portland and thousands more in surrounding areas. There are also thousands of tourists who rely on the ferry, especially during the summer and early autumn when it will be out of service.

Farmers are concerned about their ability to save stock in the event of fire. The road on the Hawkesbury side of the ferry is not capable of taking stock trailers, cutting an evacuation route – the only one left is the ferry.

HCC could have checked sometime in the last two years with TfNSW about when its spare ferry would be available – but it did not.

Sam Magnusson
Author: Sam Magnusson

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