Candidates vying for a Byron Shire Council position had their chance to impress the Byron business community yesterday morning at the picturesque Beach Cafe, which overlooks the Pass.
Organised by Byron’s business chamber, Byron United, rhetoric was, thankfully, kept to a reasonable minimum but it didn’t stop sparks flying over many contentious issues.
Our Sustainable Futures mayoral candidate Basil Cameron engaged in a heated debate over the council’s contentious events policy, which the state planning department eventually overruled.
Greens’ mayoral candidate Simon Richardson promised to take action on holiday letting. Community Independent Paul Spooner said he ran on his record in managing the Byron Bay Community Centre, while Diane Woods promised a graffiti action plan.
Karin Kolbe called for more diversity in our economy and newcomer Sol Ibrahim promised a move towards ‘quality tourism’.
Mayoral candidate Morgan told the audience, which included a number of Belongil landowners, that ‘buying a property on a sand dune is your own problem’.
Former president Ed Ahern introduced candidates and told the crowd that what has previously been lacking by Council was engagement with the business community. Appreciation and recognition was however acknowledged to those seeking a council position, given the difficulty of the job.
Mayoral candidate Basil Cameron from Our Sustainable Future was first up. After coming to the area in 1987, Cr Cameron explained that he attended the first BayFM meeting and immediately became involved with the community. He also spruiked his business background, with a history in event management, which he said turned a modest profit. In what was to be a common theme among councillors throughout the meeting, he promised for ‘Council to work better together’.
Businessman Terry Ahern enquired about Cr Cameron’s holiday-letting stance, particularly in rural zones. ‘I see no distinction between rural and other zones,’ Cameron said, while adding he supports low-impact rural tourism. He also admitted many maps used for the LEP were possibly incorrect and would need fixing.
But it was Bluesfest director Peter Noble who gave challenge to Cr Cameron’s record on the recent events policy, which provided the most heated debate of the day.
Recently dismissed by the state government, Council’s events policy was an attempt to limit the number of large-scale events in the shire. In what was a clearly awkward exchange, Mr Noble harangued Cr Cameron over the policy’s legal validity.
‘I provided almost 2000 local signatures against the events policy for the last time it was debated in council,’ Mr Noble said. ‘You know what? It was never debated. How do you feel about it? Is that community consultation? You were provided with barrister’s advice on two occasions in which you were told it was illegal and the NSW department of planning backed that up saying it wasn’t in the community interest. You didn’t even debate that in Council. You took part in a televised interview and said you didn’t agree with the NSW government’s decision… you are a solicitor aren’t you? You had that barrister’s advice and never debated it in Council… Do you think you acted properly?’
Cr Cameron responded, ‘On the matter of consultation, you know very well there was extensive consultation on the policy. I sat in many meetings with you and the whole arts community. You asked what came out of the meeting and whether it influenced change. It did influence change. There was a second draft of the events policy which took on board many of the points raised.
‘On the question of legal advice, councillors get a lot of legal advice. I am able to apply my own knowledge and skills to looking at these issues as well. But I have to say, Peter, that if Council took on board all the opinions of all proponents we’d be in deep trouble. Legal advice is just that: legal opinion.’
Not giving up, Mr Noble continued with another line of attack. ‘When you ran in 2008, you said you supported the arts and consultation. I put it to you that you haven’t. You say that you have been part of major events of regional significance. You’ve never named them, and have been asked for years.’
After more accusations, including ‘Will you do better this time? ‘Cause I reckon your record last time stinks,’ Cameron said, ‘I am always happy to hear opinions that differ. This is what this is all about, and I believe I have had very good consultation with the events industry and the creative industry, and many, many others. And I’m very proud of the role I’ve played on the Tourism Advisory Committee. We have done things that did not happen in 20 years. That is massive consultation. For 20 years we had great antagonism and very little support from the community. What I’ve been working to do is find consensus on these issues, and that’s exactly what we’ve done. If we went back four years, we didn’t have anything like this and now we’ve changed this around.’
The next candidate hopeful, Karin Kolbe, called for more diversity in our economy, despite admitting tourism being the mainstay. Touching on the recent decision by Dendy Cinemas to close, she said, ‘Big-release films may have had their day. We have to look at new economic models.’
Again Terry Ahern asked a question, this time on coastal management. Kolbe said, ‘Long term, we cannot hold back the oceans. It’s not feasible to protect the entire coastline. Sand mining made it worse. Anybody who bought in Belongil since 1980 knows there was a retreat policy.’
But holiday-letting president John Gudgeon said that Belongil should have protection. ‘There’s a lot of technology out there which can be plugged into,’ Despite that, Kolbe said she would not build a wall to protect Belongil.
Next was new comer Sol Ibrahim, who appeared popular with the crowd. He advocated ‘quality tourism’, which includes families and the like. As for Council’s court cases, he said, ‘If you fight people, they will just fight back’.
But perhaps the most interesting moment of the morning was when independent candidate Morgan spoke. On the issue of beach erosion, she said to stunned and silent crowd, ‘You have to take responsibility for yourself. Buying a property on a sand dune is your own problem. No bullying from high-priced lawyers should influence Council.’ She went on to claim she had won legal battles against the state government. ‘It cost $50,000 for the state, whereas it only cost me $100. I know law. You would be getting a bargain with me as mayor.’
After that, Greens’ Simon Richardson may have had a tough crowd but extended the olive branch, saying he was ‘Happy to say yes, but also be prepared to say no’. When asked about his voting records and his Greens alliance, he said, ‘No-one tells me how to vote. Diane Woods voted with Cr Ross Tucker 95 per cent of the time and I invite you to look at my record. As for compliance on holiday letting, yes I will support action. You may say it’s legal but I don’t. Let’s find out.’ Richardson also pointed to a 12 per cent population drop in the last years and advocated the increase bed-and-breakfast accommodation.
Community Independents lead candidate Paul Spooner was next, and invited the audience to look at his record as manager of the Community Centre and his work with the Byron Youth Service.
Finally Diane Woods played to the party faithful with a call for a graffiti action plan. ‘I asked staff to help me on developing a plan but they said no,’ she said. This eventually led to a question from the owners of the Byron Entertainment Centre, who asked about staff and the general manager. ‘The GM appeared to worked against council,’ they said. ‘Secret meetings were held about our case. How will you work with that?’
Woods said that they were not the only ones who had problems with DAs. ‘There is a problem but we will find a way,’ she said.