Talk about digging your own grave! Boy, did MidCoast Council get it horribly wrong!

We were first contacted by a visitor from Sydney, who  came to visit their relative buried in the Bight Cemetery, and was first to see the start of the devastation of the gravestones.  

I rang Mr Paul  De Szell MidCoast Council’s Director of Community Spaces who, unaware of the devastation, told me it was just a laying down of memorial statues which “could fall on people and who would sue the Council.” 

I asked about tracing members of the families and he said it was “too hard” to find members of families of the older memorials and headstones. So council was attending to the large statues memorials.

I asked  Cr Peter Epov  who represents the Wingham community on Council and a local resident, and he knew nothing about this, so the next morning, (a Saturday) he visited the Bight Cemetery and was appalled at what the saw. He took up the issue with a series of emails and texts culminating in 81 photographs being sent from his phone and two hours later Paul De Szell, who was stunned and shocked by the images pulled the plug on the exercise straight away. 

Soon the entire Council was in damage control.

Sad Saga

It’s been an on-going saga that is proving to be perhaps the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. If there are any remaining staff in MidCoast Council who think this has been just a storm in a teacup, they are fast learning that complaints about council have come to an ugly head over the Bight episode; lack of consultation, arrogance about community concerns, (as if they wouldn’t have been slightly cautious after the uproar when Mr Dan Aldridge’s department cut down all the beautiful old trees in front of the cemetery) and a lack of supervision and staff inadequacies. 

Mr De Szell says he’s trying to get to the bottom of it all. 

Whose idea was this? It’s now been over three weeks and still there are no answers. A simple look at the work order or the WHS Management Plan could reveal a great deal. It seems the heritage people may have been informed but one can’t imagine a heritage group agreeing to historic old headstones being trashed. And if the plan was to prevent someone being killed or injured by a flying gravestone why yank out cemented and pinned in two foot high headstones encased by an iron fence!  Some graves were only a few years old! 

And what kind of dullards are employed in there? Who drives a dingo digger machine (or whatever they used) through a cemetery and smashes historic headstones in one of the country’s most beautiful cemeteries (well, before they cut the trees down and before the “laying down” of the headstones) and not wonder, “duh, should I be doing this?”  

Who checked out the equipment from the Council maintenance shed and did not wonder why and what they were going to do in a well tended cemetery? Or was the equipment simply hired?

What was particularly outrageous were the admissions:

• Council failed to follow proper procedures and have a  Development Application approved prior to undergo the work.

• Council failed to follow any Guidliens as published by National Trust, Australian Standards, Cemetries and Crematoriums NSW or any other guidelines of which there are many including international guidelines from the Catholic Parish in New York or Durham in the UK.

• The Bight Cemetery is listed as a Heritage Item as No 288 in Council’s Local Environmental Plan, and it should have been treated with care and sensitivity.

• The Bight Cemetery has one of world’s rarest critically endangered species of orchid – the Wingham Donkey Orchid (Diuris flavescens) Perhaps Council could have been better informed of this as this Paper published an article about the orchid some time back, but our paper is banned from Council Offices.

Local Group Formed

Family’s loved ones being so insensitively treated by Council was extremely distressing and it didn’t take long for word to spread that this insane and poorly and tragically implemented idea from Council was going to be implemented in EVERY cemetery in the local council area.

A local group was quickly formed – The  Blight On The Bight Group,  led by Sydney business executive Tim Crossley who originally came from Taree and has family buried at the Bight. 

Damage control was swiftly enacted by Council, though,  (as the saying goes), too late, she cried. Families are devastated. And after initially being told they’d have to pay for it, as many were who first complained to Council, didn’t help. 

Council’s efforts at stemming the flood of complaints, and their poor efforts at diplomacy despite De Szell’s efforts, led to a public meeting being held in Wingham on a Sunday afternoon at the Bowling Club.  If ever there was a chance to see MidCoast Council execs in action, this was a classic example. 

Mave Richardson was invited to Chair the meeting packed into the room. At a table in front, Paul De Szell, took ownership by apologising at emotive length. The Mayor opted to sit in the front row cringing, with his back to the crowd of 160 people who were looking for contrition and answers. 

Dan Aldridge,  the recently promoted Manager of Community Spaces ( responsible for the trees at the Bight cemetery “needing” to all come down) no doubt told to be present, stood silent and sullen at the back of the room. 

Inarticulate GM

When an angry member of the public addressed the General Manager, who is rarely noted for speaking in public, the GM began to mumble, looking down at a note on the table. Mr Warwick Murray then rose and asked if the General Manager could have the decency to show some respect and get to his feet when addressing the community.

Mr Panuccio took off his watch and rose and spoke. Briefly. Sat down and put his watch back on. (Perhaps he has trouble standing because of the weight of the giant clock on his arm.) 

Tim Crossley, organiser of the meeting, spoke articulately, effectively and passionately; 

‘There was a helluva lot of emotion in the room. The Council didn’t have their facts together and they still need to do work to get back on top. They realise they’ve done wrong and are attempting to set it right. But I was especially disgusted at the Mayor for not speaking up and taking ownership by apologising, that was noticed by everyone,’ said Mr Crossley. 

‘The concern and doubt people have, and the impact on their families that the same fate awaited other cemeteries across the district won’t go away until Council goes back to square one and has proper policies and procedures in place.  People expect to be treated reasonably and respectfully over this.

‘This is no storm in a teacup that some in Council think. There is a direct impact on people about the Bight Cemetery. What happened at the Bight was terrible, more so that it seemed Council just wanted to brush it under the carpet. Though they have said they will take an independent review of it all… that’s what we’re calling for, but how independent it will be is the question. They haven’t yet indicated who will undertake that enquiry but it must be an enquiry divorced from the council perpetrators. The whole thing didn’t pass the sniff test right from the start and the actual execution of the strategy was one the many failures of this whole sorry saga,’ continued Tim Crossley.

‘Council has just had its “moment of truth” that exposes so many things that are wrong in there. We’re not trying to boil the ocean here, we’re just trying to get an answer on this specific issue to this risk assessment program and the situation at the Bight made good. As much as it can be. 

‘While some people were initially told they’d have to pay for repairs themselves, we are calling for full restitution of those headstones and it should be an act of good policy and good faith to the people affected. 

‘Now there is a map of the affected graves which shows the ones they have already agreed to proceed and repair and those that need further investigation. Some people have already reset and restored their family headstones.  

‘Restitution is also affected by the Office of Environmental Protection due to the rare ground orchid flowers at the cemetery. Which we’ve always known about.  We’re coming up to the season it flowers so that may impact and delay work being done.’ 

Adds Tim Crossley, ‘We did call for an action plan to be developed about what they need to do at the Bight Cemetery. How will they do the plan to implement a separate longer term for a monument risk assessment program? Polices, processes and procedures need to be worked out thoroughly. And they need to engage with community and get the experts on board and do the roadshow to bring it up to a full council to get approval before rolling anything out. Councils all have a cemetery policy, maybe this is yet another flaw in the Amalgamation process,’ said Mr Crossley.

Great Loss

No matter what, some of those heritage headstones will never be saved as they were. None of us will be around when the trees they plant reach maturity and hopefully, once again, a most beautiful, peaceful landmark will grace a special part of our area. 

I hope those council workers and staff responsible rest in peace, for curses are still raining down upon their thick heads.

Catherine Potts who, with her sister Wynne, was among the first to discover the horror at The Bight Cemetery when visiting the relatives buried there, came from Port Macquarie to attend the Blight of the Bight meeting. 

‘I thought the Council members were incredibly uncomfortable and while the apology seemed genuine, they did seem to let themselves off the hook a bit. There were a lot of people there not connected to the Bight but were worried it could happen to their cemeteries in the council area. There were 17 recommendations put forward at the meeting and I hope they get on with it. The proof will be in the pudding as far as how long it takes them. 

‘It was all very emotional and some people went for the juggler but I don’t think that’s terribly helpful even though they were understandably upset. 

‘I’m after a bit more than just the restoration of the headstones. I want that cemetery put back to the beautiful peaceful place it was. 

‘I was utterly devastated when they cut down those beautiful golden cypress trees. 

‘As to the workers who wrecked the graveyard, you don’t get a piece of equipment out of a council depot (like a machine) to go to the cemetery without somebody authorising it. And therefore knowing what they’re going to do with it. So somebody higher up the chain knew what was going on. 

‘My family history is the Camerons. My great great grandfather was one of the first white settlers to come and take up land on Yaypo Road. That’s why so many Camerons are buried there and my mum was a Cameron. So my grandparents and great grandparents and aunts and uncles are buried in that cemetery. Mum’s headstone is now under investigation as well. Which was a bit of a surprise as she’s only been gone 7 years. So that’s a surprise it will have to be re-pinned or something as it was very secure. ‘The whole concept was crazy. 

I understand a lot of people were upset and angry but we need to get a plan to move forward. It will be interesting to see what they can do with some of those lovely old headstones, now broken. So sad. 

My time visiting the cemetery now I’ll never see it the same but if they can replace the trees with similar and maybe put some trees through the cemetery to replace habitat that will help, right now it’s like a bomb site. Howver, we wll be hlding council to account.’


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