Greens Cr Katie Milne and Aboriginal council candidate Russell Logan have been singled out by Tweed shire councillors seeking an immediate chase of disputed minor debts owed by them to council for six years.
But Cr Milne and her supporters say it’s a repeated attempt to smear her reputation, disputing the $351.40 debt arising from her successful campaign against a controversial marina in 2006 before she was elected a councillor.
She says it’s a matter of principle and council had ‘brought on the costs themselves’ by billing her the amount after being served a subpoena for a number of documents over the marina plan, eventually overturned by the Land and Environment Court.
Cr Milne and Mr Logan both owe $489 of the $14,110 owed to council by seven companies and individuals in the past 12 years. They are the two smallest amounts in the bad debts list.
Council staff had recommended writing off all the debts as they said trying to recover them would be fruitless.
The $138 owed by Mr Logan, a former chair of the Tweed-Byron Local Aboriginal Land Council who contested the recent council election, was incurred also in 2006, when he was a member of council’s Aboriginal advisory committee. The debt involved a cash advance to cover expenses for a conference he attended.
The other debtors on the list are: Pottsville Waters Estates Pty Ltd $2,350.22, Multi Trade Contractors $1,782, Engineering Building Systems Pty Ltd $4,540.15, White Eagle Transport $4,343.99 and Malcolm Coghill, $605.
Ironically, the debt by Multi Trade Contractors was as a result of council staff transferring the amount in error to the company, yet many attempts to recover it have failed.
At the first official meeting of the new council on Tuesday, all councillors except Cr Milne, who absented herself from the debate, voted to write off five of the seven debts on the list, totalling $13,621.36.
Council staff said they’d made all reasonable efforts to pursue the debts and further attempts to recover them would fail and not be cost effective, nor legally recoverable if they fell under the statue of limitations.
The charge to recoup Cr Milne’s debt was led by Cr Warren Polglase who said his ‘colleague’ should be obliged to ‘honour her debt’ to council.
Cr Polglase said it was ‘quite disgusting’ that councillors should be seen to support a colleague who owed money to the council over a long time as it could give the impression councillors were ‘looking after their mates’.
He succeeded in getting approval from other councillors to exempt Cr Milne from the bad debtors list and the debt be pursued immediately.
But Cr Gary Bagnall, a first-time councillor, said he was concerned about ‘singling out’ Cr Milne while another debtor (Mr Logan) was a ‘candidate for council’.
Cr Polglase adopted Cr Bagnall’s suggestion to also include Mr Logan and the six councillors voted for it.
Deputy mayor Michael Armstrong, who like Cr Bagnall is also a novice councillor, said he was concerned about the direction to staff to pursue the matter urgently as staff were ‘best suited’ to determine the cost-effective way to recover them.
The third new face on council, Cr Carolyn Byrne, said she was concerned the statue of limitations ‘runs out in October’ and it ‘should be made as soon as possible’.
Cr Milne told Echonetdaily after the debate that council had ‘also wasted $5,000 on barristers fees in attempting to block the release of the Chinderah marina land sale and lease documents’.
‘I paid what the court ruled to be fair, which was capped at $800 for photocopy costs only, with the cost of the barrister not awarded to council,’ she said.
‘I stand on principle in this matter; it’s not about the money for me at all. I hoped that one day I could get council to acknowledge the lessons to be learnt from this issue. An in-house mediation process would be beneficial not just for me, but as an process available for everyone dealing with council.’
Cr Milne says she’s puzzled by the council’s long-running demands to pay the small amount when they continually failed to take legal action against some developers for unauthorised work, allowing them to seek retrospective approvals.
In February 2010, Cr Milne’s legal advocate Al Oshlack said senior council staff had wrongly pursued her for the debt as Cr Milne had paid the amount determined by the court hearing on costs in February, 2007.
Mr Oshlack said if the council believed Cr Milne owed more money they needed to go back to the same court to seek a new order, which they failed to do.
His concerns were then echoed by Combined Community Groups of the Tweed, an organisation said to represent 26 business, community and environmental groups, which helped fund the marina fight.
‘The council is out of line in chasing her up for this dubious debt. As far as we are concerned she has met all her legal obligations,’ said secretary Clinton Beisler, whose fellow members raised the $800 in costs ordered by the court.
Mr Oshlack also labelled leaked emails over two years ago, which exposed the disputed debt as a ‘cowardly attempt to discredit Cr Milne and stop her questioning major developments in the pipeline’.
He said the court judge threw out council’s excessive claims against Cr Milne for costs, including photocopying for supplying public documents which they tried to suppress.
‘The judge found that the council’s costs had been inflated by their own delays and ordered her to pay no more than $800 for the two subpoenas,’ Mr Oshlack said.
A former Tweed councillor, Ron Cooper, told Echonetdaily after Tuesday’s meeting he was ‘disappointed’ with the new council in singling out ‘the only Green and the only Aboriginal council candidate’ over their minor debts.
Mr Cooper, who contested this year’s council poll as No 4 on mayor Barry Longland’s ticket, said it was unfair because ‘it should be either all debtors or none’ exempted from further recovery action.
He said it was an obvious political targeting of Cr Milne, and the six councillors had ignored staff advice on the nature of the debts and recovery efforts.