Community – a force to be reckoned with!

Part of the 400 strong crown before the council meeting

I was one of the 400 plus ratepayers of MidCoast Council who showed up at the peaceful rally against the Council’s plan to centralise operations by moving into the Master’s building in Taree.

As requested by organiser, Katrina Pearson, the rally was well behaved, if deeply concerned at Council’s reckless ideas, secretive dealings, and lack of community consultation.  

Under the shady trees outside the Forster Council Chambers, the crowd made friends, exchanged ideas and networked. 

Council may treat ratepayers as a mere mob of locals ready to be milked to fund Council’s mistakes and extravagances, but it was a great opportunity to discover who lives in our Council area. 

Since amalgamation we are a significant group – over ninety thousand of us; farmers, teachers, shopkeepers, small business operators, retired accountants, solicitors, financial advisors, just for starters. 

That’s a lot of expertise to call on. 

Three hundred plus ratepayers were, however, banned by the General Manager, Mr Panuccio, from attending the rally or the following council meeting. And the discriminated  mob?  The Council staff.  

The GM’s edict, issued at 8am on the morning of the rally and Council meeting,  if it wasn’t outside the rules of Council, did nothing to endear the GM to his staff, most of whom have no desire whatsoever to move to work in Taree.

At the rally, the organisers of the NO Move to MASTERS, compiled a data base of concerned citizens, who added their names with their snail mail and email addresses for further communication. Council doesn’t seem to realise (especially given the spectacular failure of their flyer/survey) that there is a long list of members of the community who don’t do social media.

But the friendly mood of the crowd changed dramatically once several hundred people, including myself, crowded into the overflowing Council chamber to hear the motion brought by Councillor Peter Epov, supported by councillors Bell and McWilliams. Councillor Epov has been against the idea of the Master’s purchase from the beginning because of the underhand and secretive manner that the former GM, Glenn Handford, acquired Masters, and the subsequent secrecy from council management and lack of community consultation. 

The opening protocols of a Council meeting were observed, then we were given a stern lecture from the pulpit from the Mayor as to our behaviour – no interruptions or noise from the gallery would be tolerated. 

Councillors sat with their backs to us, facing the row of judgemental looking directors and advisors (to the Mayor) and the General Manager who all faced us.  

I have yet to hear a syllable drop from the mouth of the GM anywhere.  (Though I missed his remarks when he opened an exhibition at Manning Regional Art Gallery where he allegedly commented it was a new experience for him, being in an art gallery. If this is the case, would you tell the world you’ve never been in an art gallery??) 

But here, true to form he said not one word the entire time. Above his head was a huge power point screen for councillors to read out paperwork or illustrate a point. 

Mike Deignan, who was one of half a dozen members of the public who were granted permission to address the council, was however, refused permission to show his one page slide of his figures for the financial breakdown of the true cost of Masters for all present to see. Mike mentioned this refusal in a preface to his remarks. (Mutterings of disapproval at the refusal from the gallery.)

The public speakers were given three minutes to speak with a one minute warning – a shout from the Mayor. And if they went over by a second, more shouts from the Mayor. Most were given permission to continue for a further two minutes after a councillor raised a motion and was seconded. ( As each speaker finished, there were cheers, claps and foot stamps from the gallery.) See extracts from their addresses on p12.)

At the commencement of the “great debate”

Cr Bell suggested that Council move into ‘Committee of the whole’ a more simple, less regulated meeting process where councillors can openly discuss, work and build on, the various notices of motion, to agree on additions to the substantive motion regarding the letter from the Office of Local Government. Cr Pontin did not reveal her intent to move the motion that ultimately got up without amendment. To the supporters of Epov’s motion, and some of the public across council procedures, it seemed that allegedly Pontin’s final motion was pre-planned and allegedly known about by a certain group who knew they had the numbers.

Finally Peter Epov rose to move that his motion that an independent and transparent review of the entire project and not just the Cost Benefit Analysis with the additional requirement to “Consider other applications for the Masters’ Warehouse. . . And that the ‘source data’ in the Cost Benefit Analysis has also been independently verified.”

 (Cheers from the gallery. Stern threats to throw us out from the Mayor.)

And so, for several painful hours we sat in shock and anger as the councillors “debated” Epov’s motion. Apparently it all ended up as six pages of minutes, which is unprecedented in terms of length of debate on a matter. 

Cr. Smith (Gloucester) spoke first  . . .  once she’d found her papers, shuffled to the right one, turned on her microphone, cleared her throat and appeared to wish she was anywhere else. (The gallery was not impressed. Mutterings.) 

The next few hours were excruiating. Not because I and many others were standing, exchanging rolled eyes and raised eyebrows while others muttered “BS”…etc) But as, the, shall we say, “discussion”, rolled on, it appeared several councillors had mysteriously come to the exact same position to achieve their desired result.  

At one point Councillor McWilliams jumped to her feet and raised her voice at Cr. Roberts. (Applause for Cr McWilliams, boos for Cr Roberts from the gallery.) 

Cr. Len Roberts practically brought the house down, as he rambled arrogantly, illogically and aggressively in righteous tones. (Boos and laughter at his far fetched and scrambled reasoning from the gallery), but the Mayor threatened the gallery with expulsion and gave Roberts permission to continue his ramble -about something that was said in the Newcastle Herald among other illogical points. 

The Mayor’s attempts to restore order consisted of him shouting and threatening and finally yelling at us to remember that he has “cicadas in his head” so can’t hear properly. 

Cr Pontin seemed rehearsed and ready, as she moved her motion which doesn’t identify who, or how the Cost Benefit Analysis review will be allocated. Which means there is the same problem with this as with the previous reports as the foxes are still in charge of the chook house and the next set of consultants appointed, and terms of reference and brief will be determined by the same council staff. So likely they’ll come up with the same result if a transparent CBA doesn’t review and audit the base information.

It was a readymade compromise that possibly sounded good, but which the public gallery woke up to immediately.

Cr Epov, who had remained calm, spoke one more time, appealing to reason and sense. Of course Roberts wasn’t having that, and moved we accept Pontin’s motion. 

Epov’s motion was voted down 7 to 4. The Pontin/Roberts collective won the day.  Dr Keegan appeared to have been fence sitting, but then voted with Epov, but the question is, which councillors allegedly knew that Pontin’s motion had the numbers? 

The fear is that this new Cost Benefit Analysis review they’ve adopted will simply be a re-hash of existing deficient figures overseen by Council. Which the gallery immediately recognised as a ploy to fudge the numbers. (Angry mutterings from the gallery grew to outrage as the implication became clear. Another lecture from a near hysterical Mayor. Inscrutable expressions from the GM and his table.) 

I was moving out of the room as our beloved Mayor let fly with a comment from nowhere along the lines that the Labor Party were a Socialist Government! 

As uproar exploded, the Mayor denied he’d said it looking for reinforcement from the GM who meekly whispered…… “You did.”  But then, for once quick thinking on his feet, the Mayor spluttered a clarification that what he’d actually meant was, that Labor cares for the community.

Epov, Bell and McWilliams fought valiantly to try to bring some sensible reasoning with three other motions, but they were all rejected on the same vote on a vote of 7 to 4.

Epov and Bell also presented eight “Questions on Notice” which had to be answered by the General Manager at the Meeting. The General Manager failed to fully answer many of the questions.

Two particular stand outs were:

Why didn’t Council conduct a community consultation immediately after the acquisition of the Masters Warehouse as was promised at the time? And,

What compensation will be paid to the 70 plus admin workers who may have to commute to Taree and back from their homes from around the Forster / Tuncurry area each day?

A  bystander commented perhaps the finance department needs some out of school math calculation tutoring in order to give the community correct figures. 

A nicely spoken woman next to me, shook her head. “I had no idea. I have never been to a council meeting in my life. If this is what goes on, it’s worse than even I thought.” 

“Phil” later ruminated, “that the event was as provoking as it was despairing. I think there’s rat lines between some incumbents and former operatives. They should give an Oscar to the fake outrage of a petulant narcissist. I feel the only independent authority capable of examining it all holistically is the Independent Commission Against Corruption.”

People at the back who had spilled into the lobby were asking for clarification as the PA system was almost useless. 

‘That’s alright you can hear it all tonight at 9pm” the lady from 2Bob Radio assured us.  (The community radio station has broadcast council meetings for years. However, as it turned out, the GM refused to give her the tape and it was not returned until the following week. I couldn’t bear to listen to it all again so I can’t be sure if it was edited. I’m told apparently not.)  

While proceedings hadn’t quite wrapped up, there was now passionate networking like mass speed dating among the collective community members, most who’d never met before, as they exchanged details to keep in touch, share information and ideas to fight Council. 

It could be a force to be reckoned with! 

What this entire fiasco seems to be boiling down to is that there are a few, (and only a few) fat cat Council executives who want to centralise the operations in Taree, so that they don’t have to travel between offices, nor upskill themselves to work in a different way. Or are they afraid of using video conferencing where all their actions, decisions (and vulnerabilities) may be recorded and they may be held accountable? 

DM   

(This is not a blow by blow coverage of every precise detail and events of a long afternoon as space does not permit. But you get the gist.)

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