Accusations of financial incompetence, the death of the Richmond River, a collapse in the tourism sector, the threat posed by coal-seam gas and the looming impact of the massive Cumbalum developments were just some of the issues exercising the minds of six mayoral aspirants and a 100-strong audience at last night’s C-ward meet-the-candidates forum in Lennox Head.
But perhaps predictably, given the ward-based nature of Ballina Council, it was a hyper-local issue that got tempers flaring in the Lennox Anglican Church. The residents of Rayner Lane, which runs parallel to the beach, were incensed by a development approval that will see the widening of the lane and a substantial increase in traffic. At one point even the chairman, Lennox Head Residents’ Association president Fred Goodman, lost his cool.
The event was jointly hosted by the Residents’ Association and the Lennox Head Chamber of Commerce.
Existing C-ward Greens councillor Jeff Johnson was the first of the mayoral candidates on his feet. He wasted no time in drawing the audience’s attention to ‘an orchestrated campaign of disinformation’ against the party’s intentions, ‘including letters in the Ballina Advocate falsely claiming the Greens want to merge Ballina with Byron Shire’. This, he said, was because the Greens had a policy ‘of selling off poorly performing commercial assets to pay for $20 million of unfunded infrastructure promises by the [outgoing] council’.
‘Ballina is in the bottom 20 per cent of councils across the state when it comes to infrastructure renewal and service delivery,’ he said. ‘We need to redirect some of the $40 million of our commercial portfolio to community programs and get matching federal and state grants to build new infrastructure.’
It fell to the second mayoral candidate, Keith Williams, to elaborate on Ballina’s severe environmental problems. Williams, together with his wife, have been running Australian Seabird Rescue for several years and he is appalled at the state of the Richmond River. In an impassioned speech he said pelican numbers on the river had dropped from 200 to just 40 and the spate of fish-kills, acid sulphate run-off from drains, and the silted-up river bar indicated a dying river. But, he said, it could be turned around by proper council management, including dredging the bar, replanting the banks and managing drains. He also proposed the construction of a marina to bring back tourism to Ballina.
Mr Williams, who has spent time as a senior council staffer, said the current council had been ‘corrupted by its commercial dealings’. He hastened to add, ‘it’s not money-in-the-pocket kind of corruption but the temptation of “is it the best deal?” rather than “is it the best outcome for our community?”.’ He finished by saying he was standing for mayor because ‘I don’t think any of the current councillors deserve the promotion,’ which received a round of applause.
Sitting A-ward councillor Sue Meehan said she wanted to ‘preserve our lifestyle while we grow’. Meehan, who sits on a number of community boards, said her actions on council and as a former deputy mayor ‘speak louder than words’. She cited the Lennox cycle path and community centre, the Lighthouse Surf Club and Teven bridges as recent council achievements she was proud of.
‘During the current term I put 25 motions to council, including one on urban tree planting and management, the establishment of the Richmond River taskforce, support for OzGrom surf festival and development of the Kingsford Smith masterplan and sporting hub. I have the skills to convince others and have earned the respect of fellow councillors. I will run a professional, functional council with good governance, responsible spending and family values.’
Current deputy mayor and the only candidate with previous mayoral experience, David Wright presented himself as the safe pair of hands. Mr Wright, who has been an active supporter of council’s commercial investment strategy, said he didn’t have any vested interest, share or property portfolios that would bias his decisions.
‘If I start a task I stay to finish it. I was involved with the Alstonville bypass committee from the outset. It has taken many years but it finally opened last March. I have headed the infrastructure fund without using rate income and have fostered the Southern Cross masterplan delivering more jobs and keeping money in the community. A bridge over North Creek to Lennox is part of that plan.’
Mr Wright went on to say he had moved for the sale of Ross Street foreshore land adjacent to the caravan park to the state government. Judging by the responses from some quarters this was not a popular move. But he added the funds would provide money to renovate Lennox Surf Club, increase car parking and improve Lake Ainsworth.
Probably the youngest candidate in the room had the oldest campaign message: roads, rates and rubbish. Smith said he wanted to ‘change the fundamental philosophy in the approach of local government. I don’t want to make promises I can’t keep,’ he said.
‘Council exists primarily to maintain local infrastructure: roads, waste, water and sewerage. It’s not necessary to provide more infrastructure and services. All that leads to is a bigger bureaucracy, higher rates and more resources. Potholes need fixing and parks need to be maintained. Council is about the basics.’ Smith offered ‘simplicity, practicality and hard work’ as his solution to the council’s myriad problems.
Final mayoral candidate, Sharon Cadwallader, had a bigger vision: she sees expanding tourism as a way forward for Ballina. ‘What I want to achieve is to put Ballina Shire on the map as a most desirable and beautiful place to live and visit. Council needs to give the shire an inspiring identity and encourage business – preserve existing businesses and create new ones, which in turn creates more jobs,’ she said. ‘We need to roll out the red carpet to new businesses that support a tourist industry that brings new money into town.’
But lest the audience see her as simply pro-development she added, ‘we need to ensure sustainability and an environment that is here for us in perpetuity, to ensure all people are included and given equal consideration. Council should also be here for you as a facilitator, not only a regulator.’
Phil Meehan and Kiri Dicker presented themselves for consideration as C-ward council candidates. Both spoke ably about their experience, Meehan as an educator and disability services bureaucrat and Dicker as a consultant in the area of youth homelessness. Meehan said that communication with councillors, electors and other councils was the key to success and was one of his strengths. Dicker said that as the youngest candidate she realised how hard it was for kids to stay in the area and find meaningful work. But she also pledged to work on behalf of all sections of the community.
Two candidates were noticeable by their absence: Amelia Hicks and Phil Denison did not attend.
Questions from the floor drew out a predictable range of responses. Not one candidate supported the development of coal-seam gas in the shire and several including councillors Wright and Cadwallader called on members of the audience to become involved in the anti-CSG campaign.
Councillors Meehan and Cadwallader spoke passionately and from personal experience (as a teacher and former dental nurse respectively) in support of fluoridation following a question from an anti-fluoride campaigner. No candidate spoke against the move to fluoridate Ballina’s water supply, which council has supported.
All sitting councillors agreed that it was too late to reverse the decision to approve the controversial Cumbalum A and B precincts and that the only option was now to ensure the developer came good on promises to deliver infrastructure. Cr Cadwallader said council had driven a good deal, with $14 million infrastructure funding tied to the development approval, not the individual developer. Cr Johnson said it was imperative that the developers provided local infrastructure and shops as part of the development to alleviate overcrowding in Lennox, which itself will see an increase of more than 5,000 residents over the next two decades.
One man who quizzed Jeff Johnson on his plans ‘to sell the farm’ did not even wait around to hear the answer.
But it was the final question of the night that caused the most consternation and saw the chairman talk back at councillors.
A concerned parent of Rayner Lane asked why council had approved a restaurant and unit development together with off-street parking, which would see a substantial increase in traffic in a quiet residential street that was used as a play space by children and a convenient beach access route by many pedestrians.
Cr Cadwallader said it was a complying development and therefore could not be refused. She said a plan for a boardwalk to give pedestrians beach-side access was knocked back by residents. She added that acquisitions had taken place to allow for widening the lane and providing a footpath.
Cr Meehan said there were more letters supporting the development (30-odd) than against (nine). The chair, himself a Rayner Lane resident, raised that the letters supporting were part of an organised letter-writing campaign. Cr Meehan replied that all matters had to be taken on their merits and the supporting letters seemed genuine. She added that signage would help to move people around the shared traffic zone.
The meeting closed on time at 9pm.