Tweed mayor Barry Longland has welcomed the announcement that Division of Local Government officers will meet with councillors and staff next week, saying he’s confident the backlash from his political opponents over the sacking of the general manager last week would die down as a result.
Cr Longland said that minister for local government Don Page, who told ABC North Coast that Tweed Council was within its legal rights to sack former GM David Keenan, had confirmed the visit yesterday.
Mr Keenan was sacked after majority councillors voted in confidential session to terminate his contract 10 months into the job.
The urgency motion by the mayor was passed 4–3, with the conservative bloc of Crs Warren Polglase, Phil Youngblutt and Carolyn Byrne voting against.
An irretrievable breakdown in trust between the GM and councillors over various undisclosed issues is believed to be the reason for the termination.
But the minority conservative bloc on Council and their allies have embarked on an orchestrated campaign to have the council sacked instead and the GM reinstated.
Other community groups, however, have commended the decision, saying they were sure it was not taken lightly or without much consideration.
The campaign to undermine the majority progressive councillors who voted to sack the GM has been relentless since, with calls to local media and Mr Page by a business lobby group and associated backers for an investigation, as well as demands that Council explain its actions.
Groups allied to the pro-development bloc led by Cr Polglase, who had said after the GM’s dismissal that people would ‘call for Council’s sacking’, have since repeatedly labelled Council, elected only four months ago, ‘dysfunctional’.
The campaign to reverse the decision has also had its vicious side, with threats, warnings, harassment and intimidation by supporters of the call to sack council targeted at a councillor who voted for the sacking.
The councillor was recently approached at his business in Murwillumbah by an angry and cricket bat wielding former council election candidate allied to the conservative bloc who complained bitterly about the move.
And a former conservative mayor warned the same councillor to ‘watch his back’ as a result of the political tussle.
Cr Longland said he was looking forward to openly discussing the current situation with Division of Local Government staff.
‘I am pleased to hear the minister and the Division’s commitment to support the Tweed to move forward,’ he said.
‘The meetings will enable officers to provide guidance and support to Council officers in relation to immediate operational matters.
‘For the elected body, this is about moving forward and I welcome any investigations and support from the Division to ensure Tweed continues down our progressive path,’ he said.
‘For the organisation, it is business as usual and there is no disruption to Council’s programs or services.’
Cr Longland will tonight meet privately with heads of the Tweed’s three main business chambers who have demanded the mayor explain his reasons for the sacking, even though Council does not have to under the terms of the GM’s contract.
Cr Longland has also met with other community leaders over the issue.
‘I assure the community that the elected body remains committed to developing and implementing an economic development strategy and that economic development is firmly on Council’s agenda,’ he said.
That was a reference to criticism by the sacked GM’s backers that the loss of his economic development expertise would be a blow to the Tweed.
Council watchers say several issues that the GM handled had soured relations between Mr Keenan and majority councillors.
These include the secret charging of two councillors for a code of conduct breach after they entered a Council quarry to investigate longstanding claims by a neighbouring resident of pollution of a waterway by the quarry operations.
Their intervention led to immediate work to minimise pollution there.
Reports had also circulated that staff morale at Council had sunk recently due to internal restructuring and policies instigated by the GM, who took up his appointment at the end of April last year.
But the last straw, Echonetdaily has been told, was an unprecedented action by Mr Keenan to investigate not only his staff but councillors on the back of ‘complaints’ made by the Tweed’s biggest developer, the Leda Group, which is behind the massive Kings Forest and Cobaki developments.
The councillors were told by Mr Keenan that they were being investigated, but were not given any specific details about the complaints against them and warned not to say anything about the investigation.
The move came just after Cr Longland left for his holiday and this is believed to have infuriated him.
It also rang alarm bells for some councillors who had previously been accused by Leda of slowing down their developments.
Leda in 2011 gave a so-called ‘secret’ 74 page ‘dossier’ to local media with details of people they considered to be hurdles to their developments, including local ecologists and councillors.
Some people were targeted in the ‘dossier’ simply because they made submissions to public consultation processes.
But former longserving GM Mike Rayner did not buy the ‘complaints’ by the developer and dismissed the report. The ‘complaints’ are believed to be the same ones used by Mr Keenan in his quest to investigate councillors and staff.
Mr Keenan, 47, replaced Mr Rayner.
Before his appointment to Tweed Shire, Mr Keenan was chief executive officer of Mitchell Shire Council on the northern outskirts of Melbourne.
But he quit that job only after 18 months, with local media describing it as a ‘shock resignation’, given he had also overseen an extensive restructure of the council’s organisation and processes.
Local media reported that Mr Keenan told councillors he was leaving that shire for the Tweed for lifestyle reasons.