From the Newsroom

Councillors split on environment group’s request to audit DAs

Geoff Helisma

At last week’s October 26 Clarence Valley Council (CVC) meeting, councillors voted five to four to defeat a request by environment group Valley Watch Incorporated, to audit five development applications (DA).

“As a community organisation, we lobby government and all recognised political parties, with regard to issues we believe are important to the Clarence Valley,” the group’s website states.

Councillor Karen Toms tabled a notice of motion (NOM) at the meeting, to, “Instruct the general manager to engage an independent auditor … to audit the five developments identified by Valley Watch in the attached [confidential] correspondence, as to whether compliance procedures have been implemented in accordance with the relevant legislation, regulation and policies.”

Councillor Toms advised councillors in her NOM that Valley Watch was acting after receiving allegations that “CVC has departed from proper procedures set out in state planning legislation and the guidelines of the Local Government Act in its decisions on some DAs”.

“Valley Watch believes an audit would identify any procedural lapses, reduce CVC exposure to litigation and assist to provide assurance, certainty and confidence,” she wrote in her NOM.

“There is a list of developments that have been brought to Valley Watches’ attention; they are provided in a confidential attachment to this report.

“They are seeking an external planning compliance audit on development application approvals including compliance with conditions and inspections.

“It seeks to identify both systemic and individual process failure and provide recommendations.

“Valley Watch Inc are aware that approvals of developments of concern cannot be changed and are only seeking an audit of compliance of the process.”

Cr Arthur Lysaught wanted to know: “Who is Valley Watch? Are they qualified or capable? Is this appropriate to be before us?”

Valley Watch has been operating for at least 30 years and among its work has commissioned and funded reports including The Lower Clarence Biolinks Study and a report on the management of the flying foxes in the Clarence Valley, as well as “keeping an eye on activities in the valley, focusing on the natural environment and aiming for a region that nurtures all who live here”.

Cr Toms answered that Cr Lysaught “obviously didn’t read the NOM”.

Cr Andrew Baker addressed technical issues such as a missing signature on the confidential letter and, “what happens if there are adverse findings”?

“What’s your purpose on having an investigation and report?”

Cr Toms said she was acting on behalf of Valley Watch and revealed she had advised the group that the NOM would most likely be rejected.

“Who then is making the allegations?” Cr Baker said, “Do we know if each of the matters have already been reported to [the council]?

“Do we know if the makers of allegations have gone through the normal process of [bringing the matter to the attention] of the council, the land and environment court, ICAC or any other established authority?”

Cr Toms said that Valley Watch was not making the allegations, they were “made to” Valley Watch and said she couldn’t “add anything further than what is written in the NOM”.

“…to be honest my advice to [Valley Watch] was, ‘don’t bother, because it won’t be supported’,” she said.

“They wrote back, ‘No, we don’t want to leave this for a new council’; they thought it was important to put forward to this council.”

Cr Richie Williamson asked, “Is there anything stopping Valley Watch from finding their own auditor?”

Mr Lindsay said, “No, but we would have to make the files available.”

Cr Williamson declared to the mayor, “You have no choice but to rule the NOM out of order,” alleging that the code of meeting practice was not being followed in relation to how the proposed audit would be funded.

Mayor Simmons called a 10-minute break to consult with the general manager and governance director.

On returning to the meeting, Cr Simmons said “the general manager had made a note at the bottom of the NOM in the business paper, regarding the source of funding.

“A budget for this review (say $25,000) would need to be included in the December Quarter Budget review,” Mr Lindsay had written.

The argy-bargy continued during the subsequent debate, most of which went over the same ground raised during questions.

Councillors Willaimson, Baker, Lysaught, Simmons and Kingsley were opposed; councillors Toms, Ellem, Novak and Clancy were in favour of an audit.