The highly-orchestrated campaign by Tweed shire’s minority pro-development councillors and their supporters to have the mayor and council sacked for having cut short the general manager’s contract has been slammed by a former councillor and other groups as farcical.
The criticism of the relentless and ‘virulent’ attacks by the conservative lobby on mayor Barry Longland and other councillors who voted with him to sack GM David Keenan last month comes as Division of Local Government officers sent in by the government in response to the backlash ended their inquiry this week.
The campaign, urged on by veteran National Party Cr Warren Polglase and his factional colleagues Crs Phil Youngblutt and Carolyn Byrne, has been backed by business group members and their allies who supported the trio’s election campaign last September.
It culminated in a rally at Murwillumbah Showground on Tuesday at which current and former National Party mayors, councillors, MPs and federal candidates were prominent among the placard wavers.
Former Greens councillor Henry James said it was unfortunate that councillors who supported the sacking were not able to ‘speak freely and in detail about their reasons’ as they would ‘probably face a defamation action’.
One of the reasons the breakdown in the relationshsip between the mayor and GM broke down is believed to have been the former GM’s unprecedented unilateral decision to investigate his own staff and councillors on the back of ‘complaints’ by the Tweed’s biggest developer, Leda, and requesting the investigation be kept secret.
Another line of speculation was Mr Keenan’s move to charge two progressive councillors with a code of conduct breach for going into a council quarry to look at pollution of the waterway which neighbours had long complained about.
Mr James told Echonetdaily that ‘if the GM had indeed decided to have the so-called “Leda dossier” reinvestigated, that in my view would by itself be reason for sacking, especially if he had made the decision without first putting the matter before council’.
He said the GM’s ‘pre-emptory decision to spend ratepayers money for the second time’ to investigate claims were bizarre given the claims had already been discredited, and the campaign supporting him a ‘farce’.
‘After all, the accusations in the dossier had been dismissed by the previous council at the advice of the previous GM. They had also been effectively dismissed by the state government which has taken no action on them,’ he said.
‘It is no wonder the GM had lost the support of councillors if, as has been reported, he informed them he was reinvestigating accusations made against them by Leda, refused to give them details of the accusations and warned them not to say anything about the investigation. If there was any substance to the accusations Leda would have put them before an appropriate tribunal long ago.
‘It was inappropriate for the GM to do anything more with the accusations than to advise them accordingly.
‘Most people do not realise that GMs of councils have enormous power. Councillors have very little. The choice of GM is the one significant power they have.
‘If a GM is unwilling or unable to accept a significant shift in political tenor and policy after an election, it is time for him to move on. It certainly would not be appropriate for him to run his own agenda, or that of the minority of councillors,’ Mr James said.
Pottsville Community Association and Wooyong Residents Group president Chris Cherry said the councillors’ ‘took a strong position and that needs to be trusted and respected’.
Ms Cherry said majority councillors had lost faith in their employee ‘and at the end of the day the GM has a lot of responsibility and they need to have complete faith in him and if they can’t have that they need to find a new employee.
‘I really liken it to a large company where a company director has decided to sack a CEO, the shareholders don’t always get the information straight away about why that has to happen but you have to accept they are within their rights to do that’, she said.
One council watcher told Echonetdaily before Tuesday’s rally that ‘it would be diverting to see which of our business leaders support an employee who, reportedly, has had the temerity to initiate an investigation of his bosses. An investigation seemingly based on the semi-secret hit list of a disgruntled client’.
A report from the Division of Local Government investigators is expected to be presented to local government minister Don Page later this month.