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Councillors challenge CVC’s accountability on scar tree report

Geoff Helisma |

The councillors’ handbook tells councillors, among other instructions, that they must: “represent the collective interests of residents, ratepayers and the local community; make sure that taxpayers’ money is spent in the best interest of the community; and, provide accountability to the community by reporting on the outcomes of council’s activities”.

However, their Code of Conduct instructs that they must not “direct or influence, or attempt to direct or influence, any other member of the staff of the council, or a delegate of the council, in the exercise of the functions of the member or delegate”, as per the Local Government Act.

At last week’s February 26 Clarence Valley Council (CVC) meeting, this apparent paradox was the dominant factor when councillors were asked to “receive” and “note the contents” of a report on the “Removal of Aboriginal Scar Tree” and the “Advice of Sentencing and Orders of the Court”.

Following Cr Baker moving and Cr Williamson seconding the motion, the mayor, Jim Simmons, called for questions.

Councillor Greg Clancy said he had submitted his question to the general manager, Ashley Lindsay, prior to the meeting.

“I understand that the staff member who cut down the scar tree has been disciplined, but what disciplinary action has been taken

[regarding]

the director [who] was responsible?” Cr Clancy asked.

The mayor ruled the question out of order and said “it is inappropriate for a councillor to approach staff on operational areas”.

Councillor Clancy asked if he could respond.

The mayor said, “You can move a motion of dissent but you had better be careful debating the matter.”

Councillor Clancy did not continue.

Councillor Debrah Novak said she had provided three questions to the general manager: “Are you able to explain how council failed to ensure the status of the scar tree wasn’t recorded following the 2013 incident?

“Are you also able to explain why the council didn’t implement undertakings advised to the Office of Environment and Heritage that it was going to implement, following the lopping of the scar tree in 2013; and, did senior staff have foresight and knowledge to prevent what happened to the scar tree [in 2016]?”

She then asked: “Am I allowed to ask those questions?”

The mayor said he wasn’t sure, but invited her to “proceed”.

As Cr Novak began to ask her questions, Cr Richie Williamson called a point of order (POO).

“The report and the questions should relate to the advice and sentencing of the court orders,” he said.

The mayor overruled each question as she read them out, inline with Cr Williamson’s POOs, and ruled they were inappropriate.

Cr Jason Kingsley also called a POO.

“We were asked to note a report,” he said. “We are not delving into the details of the discovery issues.”

Councillor Toms moved a dissent motion on the mayor’s rulings.

“I understand this is sensitive … but I believe Cr Novak’s questions are pertinent to this report,” she said.

“[Our] community is entitled to know the answers.

“…I am extremely disappointed to close down questions that are uncomfortable for people here.”

Councillor Baker said, “This matter has been before a court.”

Councillor Toms called a motion of dissent, accusing councillors of “trying to close things down”.

“This is of great public interest and our community needs to know it will never happen again,” she said.

Councillor Kingsley retorted and said “under the Code of Conduct councillors are not to engage in inappropriate interactions” with staff.

A vote was taken and Cr Novak’s questions were officially ruled out of order; with all councillors agreeing, apart from councillors Toms, Novak and Clancy.

There was further argy bargy about whether or not the confidential attachment, the Restorative Justice Agreement with the Grafton Ngerrie Local Aboriginal Land Council, should be confidential.

Mr Lindsay revealed that the signatories had signed a hand written agreement of confidentiality at the restorative justice workshop.

Councillor Toms asked if there was a reason that the agreement was confidential.

However, neither Mr Lindsay, Cr Kingsley nor the mayor, Jim Simmons, all of whom attended the workshop, provided a “yes or no” answer when asked to do so by Cr Toms.

Subsequently, Cr Toms successfully moved an amendment, to report all costs to council as soon as possible.

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