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Think Local

Everyone in the local media knows that outgoing Northern Beaches Council Administer, Dick Persson, A speaks impartially concerning peninsula affairs -especially compared to former Warringah Council mayor Michael Regan and Wakehurst MP Brad Hazzard - who frequently use fighting words.

Yet, maybe because he's finishing his stint as the administrator, in Peninsula Living's hour-long talk with the council great, he's more than happy to present his case and provide raw details about his job and more. 
The first bombshell he drops is completely unrelated to politics. "I've worked here for 13.5 years all up, and never have I once swam at a Northern Beaches beach," he chuckles. 
Does he not like the water? "I love the water. I've just been busy," the 67-year-old reasons. "I also live 300 metres away from Bronte beach, so I just go there. It's odd though. I'll try and change that." 
Mr Persson came on the scene in 2003 when Warringah Council was in total chaos - there was irresolvable tension and distrust between councillors and thus all were dismissed. He took on the position of administrator - and over the years accepted the challenge twice. 
"Can I be frank? People used to say to me, 'You've got a really difficult job' - but I had been the director general of three large government departments for the previous 15 years. So, this wasn't a hard job. Yet it was certainly lonely initially not knowing who to trust on the council," Mr Persson reflects. 
"When I came back in 2016, I knew it would be a different environment - the councils were well run. It was an easy decision to say yes to the job once again, and if the minister rang me today and said, 'Would you like to extend your time further?' I'd say 'Yeah'," he concedes. 

"So, leaving the council, I'll be sad initially because this has been such a wonderful experience. To be called back in was like another feather in my cap I wasn't expecting. I'll miss the excitement and the opportunity to do things for people. 

"However, I can't wait to play more golf, go fishing, travel, see the grandchildren and my partner more... and I won't miss driving from Bronte..." 
Rewinding to the first time he came on board as administrator - the role was a little different to the second. 

"In 2003, I campaigned for six months before the election that no one who was involved in the Warringah Council debacle prior to its dismissal should come back to the council," he says. "Warringah Council needed a fresh group of people. 
"I also never wanted [Independent party Vincent] De Luca in the future council. Unfortunately, he did get in," Mr Persson. 
"He was an organ grinder - the taction in the gallery that set out to bring his opponents down - he mounted campaigns against his components and the community fell into his traps." 

Mr Persson believes he was brought in as the administrator "to make the big decisions and fix the place up. It was hard to determine my actual job description at times. Under the Act, an administrator 'becomes the council' and that's all it says." 
A "big decision" was made on his first day on the job, which ended up being "one of my biggest achievements". 

"I went out to buy a sandwich in Dee Why and I couldn't find a place to sit down and have it," Mr Persson explains. "I came back to the office and asked the general manager, 'What's the plan with Dee Why?' and he showed me and I said, 'That's not a plan. There's nothing for the people there.' 
"So I set about it then and there to make Dee Why have a proper town centre and be a place you would be happy to go to dinner, with shopping streets and a playground. I have helped to make Dee Why a much better place. 

He knows very well "redoing Dee Why was controversial". 
"This is the irony..." he continues, "When I make decisions people like, they're happy about it. If I make decisions they don't like, they go straight to 'Well, you're not elected and there's no democracy.' I just find that mildly amusing." 
However, many times decisions have been out of his control - one being recently when Warringah residents' rates went up when the government promised they wouldn't. 

"It's hard to hold the line when you know people are angry and upset. That was tough. My hands were tied. But I've never been remotely close to throwing in the towel as things have become hard," he says. 
With changes he did have the power to make, Mr Persson practiced the rule "I need to be swayed by the quality of argument - not the number of people signing a petition. 
"That's what's wrong with some councillors - they are very susceptible to lobbying from many local groups. If people are making the wrong decision because they're worried about getting voted out then that's no good - the decision makers can't be scared." 
He references the Pittwater Forever lobbyist group, who are running as Independents in the Pittwater ward, as being "a struggle to work with". 
"They have a political agenda, which is focused on trying to demerge the council," he states. 

He warns the group that it needs to watch its ways with the new council. 
"How do you think the new council is going to react when you keep hysterically campaigning? I think it's really something you should think about" he advises. 
Mr Persson is quick to add, "Most organisations are really nice to deal with. People are nice to deal with. I often say, while I deal with some of the most selfish people in our community, I deal with many more lovely people. 
"One highlight was organising a Warringah all abilities art show Hundreds of people attended. Handing out the awards -that was really special," he says, with a hint of emotion. 
Regarding the amalgamation - which Pittwater Forever is so vehemently against - this is the only time in the interview Mr Persson has been his neutral self. 

"I don't comment on the amalgamation. My job is just to make it all happen. It's rubbish to debate it as it's happened and I don't want to seem like I'm taking a side," he states. 
"But there are advantages in the strategic plans with the one council now. Beforehand, none of the three councils saw it as their responsibility to satisfy the whole area. Once you've got responsibility for this bigger picture, it's a no brainer. I mean, basic developments that benefit the whole region are the obvious thing to do - like filling in the missing bits of the coastal walkway from Manly to Palm Beach." 

Mr Persson believes the new council "will be fine". "Financially, we're very strong and in a good position. Whether they work together effectively is an unknown. Some councils polarise and start to fight. "But I do not have fears at all - the councillors will work hard to make it work." 
Challenges he lists include making Brookvale more attractive through the new masterplan, and ensure the future Frenchs Forest town centre "is done nicely as a destination people actually want to go to - yet this will be hard for the council as most developers want to get the maximum out of the site and the commercial space." 
And, as his time as administrator comes to an end, does Mr Persson have any regrets? 

"I've become more short-fused - I've sometimes failed my own standards to remain calm with people," he muses. 
"I suffer fools not as well as I used to. I'm now more likely to say to someone, 'Look, I've explained this to you - I think you live on a different planet to me, and I'm going to stop talking to you as this is a waste of time'," 
he states. "When people come across as just astoundingly selfish, oblivious to other people's interests or whatever, I find myself very impatient with that. 

"However, there's no decisions I look back and think, 'Oh, I've made the wrong decision. I have a real passion for the area so I have the region's best interests at heart." 
And finally, has Mr Persson learnt any life lessons at his time in the role? Any words of wisdom he can share with peninsula locals that have assisted him along the way? 
"Yes. Don't stop at Upper Crust every time you drive through Collaroy. Their satay chicken pie is delicious. I've put on about three kilograms recently," he smiles.

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