A bitter row is brewing between Tweed Shire’s general manager and two councillors he has accused of trespassing on a council quarry that they inspected after claims it was polluting a nearby waterway.
And in a bizarre twist, the two councillors were filmed by a security camera as they scaled the quarry fence so they themselves could take pictures, leading to the two being charged by the GM under the council’s secretive code of conduct.
Council management yesterday was staying tightlipped about the issue, but a defiant Cr Gary Bagnall said he was shocked to find he’d be hauled up to Council’s code-of-conduct panel this week to answer a charge for what he says was simply doing his job as a councillor.
Under the code of conduct, councillors can be censured or made to apologise if offences are proved, and repeat offenders face suspension.
Cr Bagnall, one of several new councillors elected last September, told Echonetdaily he and Greens Cr Katie Milne had been called at the weekend by a member of the shire’s code-of-conduct panel review committee, a body with independent members, who served them notice about the complaint.
The panel member who called them is a senior police officer and criminal investigator.
Cr Bagnall, a Murwillumbah cafe owner, said the panel hearing is to convene this week but he’s not happy and is seeking legal advice.
He said general manager David Keenan, who was appointed to the top job earlier this year, had lodged the official trespass complaint over his and Cr Milne’s recent visit to the council quarry site on Numinbah Road near Chillingham.
A neighbouring landowner, who has complained for years about noise, dust and water pollution from the three quarries there, including Council’s, had invited them to inspect the adjacent creek and quarry site.
All three quarries have ceased to fully operate, with the owners of one blaming the expense of a court battle over the alleged pollution forcing them recently to close it down.
That prompted Tweed Council to seek a meeting with primary industries minister Katrina Hodgkinson earlier this year over the issue, and local farmers fearing the court case could close every quarry in NSW.
Cr Phil Youngblutt recently pushed for Council to buy land surrounding the quarries to use as a buffer zone as a means of resolving the longstanding issue.
Council staff are currently finalising a report on the future of quarrying on Council’s properties and it’s believed staff and the state’s Environmental Protection Authority have discussed pollution at the site.
Cr Bagnall says he decided to investigate the alleged pollution believed to be linked to the quarry and had photographed a ‘red sludge’ in the creek thought to have seeped from the quarry.
He said they also decided to enter the fenced quarry site after walking around its perimeter on what they believed was a public road.
‘We thought, well, we’re here and working for Council so we’ll take a closer look,’ he told Echonetdaily.
‘Dragging us before a panel for this is ridiculous and feels intimidating,’ an outraged Cr Bagnall said.
‘I have keys to Council Chambers and can wander around all hours there with no-one else in the premises, and now they’re saying I’m stepping out of line for going to have a look at a Council quarry.
‘I’m trying to ensure there’s transparency. A member of the community asked us to have a look at it so we did. I can’t see what’s wrong with that.’
Cr Bagnall, a vocal supporter of sustainability in development since his election, says he has wanted to send ‘a very clear message to developers that the people of the Tweed expect all developments to be sustainable in the future’.
He said that after inspecting the creek near the quarry, he was ‘shocked to say the least that this type of activity has been allowed to continue for so long’.
‘This little creek, which feeds into Murwillumbah’s water supply, is one of the most polluted creeks I have ever seen and it is in a most idyllic environment of bush and mountains.
‘A few months ago I made comments regarding this quarry, that housing should not encroach on our rural industries and this might be the problem.
‘But I retract that comment and wished I had been out to see the extent of the contamination before making it. This creek is a disgrace.’
It is not the first time a council GM has used the code of conduct against councillors. Former GM Mike Rayner and former Cr Dot Holdom were accused in parliament last year by Liberals MLC Marie Ficarra of using the code in a campaign of vilification and politically motivated complaints against former mayor Joan van Lieshout.
Cr Katie Milne also was subject to what she said was politically motivated code-of-conduct complaints against her, which were not sustained.
The code was recently reviewed by the state government for the second time in six years. Minister for local government, Don Page, said the review was due to several incidents of ‘inappropriate’ use.