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Baker: ‘It’s about facing the issue’

At an extraordinary meeting of Clarence Valley Council last Friday November 26, the mayor, Richie Williamson, quashed any debate on a matter brought to the meeting by Cr Andrew Baker. Councillor Baker was seeking, in part, to “amend the relevant policies and procedures to remove any possibility [that the] council could be seen to be inadvertently double-dipping or double-charging for a water and/or sewer capital contribution”. Primarily, Cr Baker was acting on behalf of an aggrieved and unnamed ratepayer, who has been asked to pay a $15,865 water and sewer contribution before construction of a house can begin. Cr Baker says that contribution was paid when the building block was developed in 1980. The block, which was purchased in 2007, had been part of a consolidated block for rating purposes – where a ratepayer living upon two titles can be absolved from paying rates on the second block if the services provided are unused. After being sold, the block was rated separately. At the extraordinary meeting, Cr Williamson moved a motion, seconded by Cr Sue Hughes, to amend Cr Baker’s motion – to remove four of his five points and only retain point 1, which noted the tabling of a “report on sewer and water connection fees”. During questions, Cr Williamson said that if his amendment was successful and the resulting motion was carried, that the issue couldn’t be tabled at another council meeting for three months – as per the code of meeting practice. Councillor Karen Toms said she thought that the mayor’s amendment should have been a foreshadowed motion because “it seems completely different” to Cr Baker’s motion. The mayor said he was “uncomfortable with the process” to put the matter before councillors. He said he would have been “more comfortable” if the matter had been presented as a notice of motion to an ordinary council meeting. “If that was the case I would certainly consider that,” he said. Cr Baker said the wording in the council’s policy had “somehow got stuffed up”. “It’s about facing the issue … so we can allow a rate paying couple to get on with their life and not wait for three months for us to feel comfortable”. “I hope that councillors can let this issue be explored,” he said. Cr Baker said if his motion was then “rejected, then so be it; at least have the decency to explore it for the [benefit] of all other ratepayers that are the subject of something not of their making”. The mayor’s amendment was carried on his casting vote, with the support of councillors Sue Hughes and Jason Kingsley. Councillors Baker, Toms and Jim Simmons opposed the amendment. During debate on the resultant motion, Cr Baker said, “now, given this motion is the opposite to the previous motion, the only two choices I have is to move a motion of no confidence or to step aside and allow it to be decided in another place”. Councillor Baker, however, did not move the ‘no confidence’ motion, nor step aside. Councillor Toms said the amended motion “had nothing to do with the motion brought before the council”. “We are were trying to be fair to a ratepayer to change a policy; perhaps so it doesn’t capture people like this – there are obviously a few others who were caught up in this policy, exhibited in 2011 and capturing people from 2005”. Councillor Williamson said he had “some sympathy” for the residents who prompted Cr Baker’s motion. “We are here to make public policy for all residents,” he said. “If there’s an error, I have no problem with the policy being reviewed in a structured manner that would benefit all.” He said he was “very uncomfortable” with how the matter had been raised “outside the ordinary [meeting] process”. “The best way is to pass this motion and consider [the situation] in a normally structured manner and [receive] considered input from staff and those affected”. Councillor Baker argued that he and the ratepayers involved had not had their enquires answered appropriately. “We’re not even getting a legal advice that we [the council] had on Nov 13 – the legal advice [in the councillors’ confidential report] tells us there is another legal advice [specifically on the block involved] we haven’t even been given,” he said. “This is becoming sinister, at least for the people who wouldn’t let it see the light of day. “Is the hidden advice going to make us more uncomfortable?” Councillors Williamson, Kingsley and Hughes voted in favour of “noting and receiving” the report on water and sewer charges. Councillors Baker, Toms and Simmons were opposed – the motion was carried on the mayor’s casting vote. Councillors Howe and Lysaught proffered apologies; Cr McKenna arrived after the meeting had concluded. Councillor Baker has subsequently lodged a notice of motion, which, if accepted, will be heard at the December 8 council meeting. On that occasion, it will specifically address the actual block and associated subdivision that prompted the extraordinary meeting.