‘We are all Maitland.”
Those are the words of mayor Loretta Baker when asked about the legacy she wants to leave to the city she loves.
It’s a chilly and grey day in September when we sit down to talk about the highs and lows of her first term.
A year ago, she was coming to the end of what she calls an “intense campaign”.
Baker was pre-selected by Labor as their mayoral candidate – just three months before last year’s September election.
Vying against five other mayoral candidates, the former nurse emerged victorious with 31.4 per cent of the vote.
It made her the first female mayor in the city’s history – yet Baker admits she didn’t recognise the social magnitude of the win until months later.
“It took me a long time to actually think about it because I was too busy trying to get on my feet,” she reflects.
“Young girls started ringing me up and they were all so excited.
“They [older women] were all so happy for me … it wasn’t something I thought about when I put my hand up.
“They’ve never been represented by a woman at a local government level before.”
The Lorn resident concedes there have been ups and downs during her first term – with council in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons.
“In those first few months, I was not prepared for the fact that people weren’t willing to work together. It was quite disruptive initially – we had a dissent motion,” Baker says.
“[My biggest challenge] has been rising above the politics. We aren’t here to point score. We are here to represent the people who voted us in. But I will say it is getting better.”
In particular, Baker remembers the battle over the contentious 2018/19 budget and 2018-2021 delivery program – which saw months of bitter debate between councillors.
“A highlight was finally getting the budget through … I had no idea that it would be so difficult,” she says.
“I had not anticipated anyone would make such a big deal about the budget, and particularly focusing in on the art gallery.”
Councillors squared off on three separate occasions after Penfold Independents and Liberal Party members moved significant amendments, including a proposed freeze funding for the Maitland Regional Art Gallery at 2017/18 levels.
They argued against the estimated $38,000 weekly loss of the gallery’s costs in the 2018/19 financial year.
But Baker defended the gallery as tourist attraction that brings an injection into the local economy and creative vibrancy – and in the end she got her way.
“The highlight of it was the [positive] response from the community,” Baker says.
Baker has served as a Maitland City councillor since 2008, and took a a swipe for the top job in the 2012 elections but was defeated by incumbent mayor Peter Blackmore.
Since donning the chains, she has championed several campaigns including protecting public libraries and pushing for more infrastructure in the city.
But there have been hurdles too, including the Labor Party’s controversial $100 rate rebate election promise being shot down in council chambers.
“It was very contentious. [I’m disappointed] because we said we would do it … but we didn’t have the numbers,” she says.
In recent weeks, Baker has faced backlash from heritage advocates when councillors supported the demolition of a Ledsam Street home.
The decision sparked conservationist Chris Richards to call a vote of no confidence in the council’s ability to make heritage decisions.
However, Baker prides herself as being an advocate for heritage.
“I will always have a strong interest in our built and natural heritage,” she said. “It’s something unique to Maitland, and I recognise its important place in the country’s history.
“We aren’t saying there can’t be new houses but you have to look after the integrity. It’s been on my flier since I ran for council.”
The mayor acknowledges the next three years will be filled with hard work but said she is proud to be part of such an inclusive community.
“We have a duty. Leaders have to empower their people … and that’s what I think we as a council need to do,” she says.
“We are never all going to agree on everything – that’s the great joy of the human condition. I think Maitland has that in spades – working together – and that’s what I have to keep up.
“Maitland has a very proud history of pulling together. Even with thousands of new residents each year, there’s a very well established social fabric of community groups, sporting groups that connect people.
“It might be a growing regional city but it is still a very warm, welcoming city.
“If we can keep that, then that would be the biggest achievement – a cohesive city where people respect and acknowledge each other.
“We are all Maitland … and that’s what I try and maintain.”