Lismore City Council has appointed a new business panel to help promote the town, but it wasn’t without a fair share of argy bargy.
The new Lismore Business Panel (LBP) will oversee the spending of a special business rate levied on commercial properties in the urban area to fund a promotion program.
But some councillors and major stakeholders left during debate on its makeup amid claims of a flawed process and conflicts of interest.
Local business owner Robert Bou-Hamdan told council during public access last week that the new panel was ‘not a fund that council should manipulate to spend money on arts under the banner of place making’ but ‘business money to be controlled by business people to support businesses’.
Mr Bou-Hamden said he had called for a review following the exit from the panel of the Lismore Chamber of Commerce, Lismore Square and two councillors, but it had been rejected.
He also challenged mayor Jenny Dowell to excuse herself from the voting because he claims she had handpicked one of the nominees to sit on the panel and approached them before the selection committee meeting.
But Cr Dowell rejected the claim, saying she did not handpick (the nominee), nor ‘speak to her about it’.
‘I spoke to Rob Walker from Lismore Square as I heard he was not going to stand for the panel and I wanted to know if he thought there was anyone at Lismore Square who might be interested and he said he would think about it,’ she said.
‘I had been to the Lismore Square awards night and I had seen the nominee win several awards so I asked about her. I did not know her and Mr Walker said he would speak to her.
‘He subsequently spoke to her and she obviously applied. I did not handpick her, I suggested that she might be a candidate and I did not speak to her about applying so I reject your allegations,’ said mayor Dowell.
Mr Bou-Hamdan said the minutes in the business paper attachments showed otherwise, but Cr Dowell said ‘they must be incorrect, I have seen those minutes and I sent through a correction of those minutes which if they haven’t been adjusted then I have missed it, I did not approach her’.
‘I will put on the record now I did not approach the nominee, end of questions,’ she said.
Cr Neil Marks added that the minutes read ‘the mayor did approach the Lismore Square manager to encourage him to approach a business owner from the Square… the mayor subsequently communicated with the nominee who then lodged an application.’
Mayor Dowell said ‘she could not recall if she passed on any information about the panel but I did not encourage her or have dealings with her applying.’
Mr Bou-Hamdan challenged the mayor to say whether she ‘spoke with the nominee before she nominated or not?’
The mayor replied that she has spoken with the nominee several times as the nominee has a serious medical condition.
Mr Bou-Hamdan added that he did not want to bring the condition up, which the mayor agreed.
Cr Vanessa Ekins interrupted the debate and said that council are ‘looking at putting a panel of people together who can work cooperatively and find solutions and positive ways to work together for our community.
‘I don’t see how this kind of accusation is a positive example at all… this is inappropriate,’ Cr Ekins said.
Mr Bou-Hamdan said ‘this is not inappropriate, it is all factual’, before walking off.
Cr Ekins said ‘we have a code of conduct and we are not meeting it.’
Mr Bou-Hamdan retorted that this ‘was a business panel not an arts panel’ before returning to the speaker’s podium.
Cr Isaac Smith said ‘the non-significant issue that I raised was that I built a website for the nominee around two years ago, it was a brief contract and I do not know her personally nor have I spoken to her for a couple of years.’
Mr Bou-Hamdan said ‘even though you have declared your interest Cr Isaac Smith, I find it unusual that you should stay in the chamber for the vote when you have worked for one of the nominees, the one who the mayor handpicked’.
During public question time Mr Bou-Hamdan was invited to the chair by mayor Dowell to do so ‘civilly with some respect for the chamber and the people in it.’
Mayor Dowell later apologised.
‘I would like to apologise, I have sat here and recalled that I did have a conversation with the nominee who rang me and asked about the panel.’
Cr Dowell said ‘I did not handpick her and I still contend that I do not have a conflict of interest in that. For the record I did have a conversation and I am sorry if that has dropped from my mind.’
When it came time for council to vote for the new LBP Cr Gianpiero Battista left the chambers because of his conflict of interest.
Cr Smith added another member as a late nominee to the LBP which means there will be six unassigned positions.
‘We need to push on with this,’ Cr Smith said, ‘we have seen some wonderful events come to town and some wonderful promotions. We have the lowest vacancy rate in the CBD in five years, which I believe is a result of the hard work of the panel, along with council, the Chamber of Commerce and retailers, Lismore is actually going places.
‘We are in a downswing but I do hope that is turning around,’ said Cr Smith.
Cr Smith responded to claims by Mr Bou-Hamdan that the LBP is more arts-focused.
‘Over three years on the panel I can tell you that we have spent just 27 per cent of our budget on items recommended for the creative industries, and half of that money went to the Conservatorium of Music for their free Saturday concerts, so we are talking around 14-15 per cent which isn’t a big slice of our budget,’ Cr Smith said.
Cr Smith spoke of his disappointment about the resignation from the Chamber of Commerce.
‘It is a shame, we have had a productive relationship and I was concerned when we received the letter saying the panel was dysfunctional,’ said Cr Smith.
‘The chamber has supported recommendations (by the LBP) 96 per cent of the time,’ said Cr Smith.
Cr Smith said that ‘over four years of funding the largest single organisation receiving funding from the LBP was the Chamber of Commerce. That is one in every four dollars went to the chamber.’
‘I find it ironic we still have this issue, I am hoping that they appoint someone on the panel soon,’ Cr Smith said.
‘I think to say the LBP is dysfunctional is incorrect and dismissive and is a poor decision. I am sure that they will revert and change back to participating. We don’t want to see businesses withdrawing from the chamber. People have left the chamber because of their lack of consultation and for leaving the LBP.’
‘The LBP is a peak body for public spaces, for placemaking, for making sure that Lismore is a good place to do business,’ Cr Smith said.
Cr Greg Bennett spoke against the motion.
‘I am not speaking against the people who have been selected – I am speaking against the process which I have spoken at lengths about before.
‘Lismore’s premiere business organisation, the Chamber of Commerce has withdrawn, Lismore Square has withdrawn and is not participating as a body, two councillors withdrew from the selection process and an amendment to review the selection process was rejected. We had a chance to go back and look at it and we didn’t,’ Cr Bennett said.
An open assigned position for the Lismore Chamber of Commerce remains on the LBP.
Cr Marks requested council to add a review process where membership on the panel would elapse if three meetings in a row were missed without an apology.
Cr Clough is part of the LBP selection committee and pointed out that Cr Smith is not on that committee.
‘There is no conflict of interest if Cr Smith is not on the selection committee,’ Cr Clough said.
Cr Clough added a different set of statistics into the Chamber of Commerce debate.
‘They are getting 70 per cent of the LBP money which is apparently not enough. I don’t see this as a big issue, we need to move on with this excellent committee that has been selected,’ Cr Clough said.
Cr Clough asked Cr Bennett ‘why he thought this LBP process was bad when he was prepared to cut off the consultation process with the Biodiversity Management Strategy.’
Cr Smith closed the debate by saying ‘that there are no conspiracies here, some of the charges being thrown around here are scandalous. If they had any merit they would go to a higher authority and it would be acted upon. Instead it is fodder for social media which is disappointing.’
Mr Bou-Hamdan, who founded Lismore Radio, a Facebook site that attracts a lot of attention, said that he has many enemies, mostly from council and police.
He said council has previously tried to ban him from council meetings and buildings.
He also said he was excluded from participating in the Imagine Lismore consultation.
‘That is because I lobby strongly against these people so you would expect that,’ Mr Bou-Hamdan told Echonetdaily.
‘I do have a lot of support and business support. The problem is that most people will only express their true feelings off the record as they are afraid of the repercussions, that they will get boycotted for example.
‘The problem with this area is that if you don’t agree with the majority you are shut down and silenced,’ Mr Bou-Hamdan said.
Mr Bou-Hamdan told Echonetdaily that he did not ‘ambush mayor Dowell at the meeting, I had emailed her previously which I have proof of. I advised her that myself.
‘To be fair, Cr Battista was the only one who walked out, his only conflict was his relationship with someone who had an allocated seat on the LBP, so it wasn’t really a conflict,’ he said.
Mr Bou-Hamdan said he backed council involvement on the LBP but he said he ‘cannot support the domination he has observed.
‘The LBP is meant to bring business to existing businesses, they made a mistake with the Magellan markets, the wider business community do not benefit from them and market owners do not contribute to the special business rate. Products are sold that can be purchased from existing businesses.’
Councillors supported the new LBP (Crs Bennett and Schiebl against, Cr Meineke away).