A heated row erupted among Tweed shire councillors last night over a bizarre move by Cr Barry Longland to try to force mayor Gary Bagnall to sign a letter apologising to the state deputy premier for spoiling a recent announcement for funding of a tourism sign by comments the mayor made on coal-seam gas (CSG) and Aboriginal heritage.
Cr Longland, who was mayor for three years before Cr Bagnall challenged and won the top job last September, succeeded in his notice of motion for Cr Bagnall to send the letter he drafted ‘without delay’ to deputy PM Troy Grant and the National Party MPs for Lismore, Thomas George, and Tweed, Geoff Provest.
Cr Longland said his letter should be given ‘high priority’ due to the ‘damage’ done to relations between Tweed Shire Council and the state government. He had the support in the 4-3 vote for his move from the three National Party-aligned Crs Warren Polglase, Phil Youngblutt and Carolyn Byrne.
But an angry Cr Bagnall told councillors he won’t be ‘bullied’ into signing the letter, or by anyone to ‘put words in my mouth’ in press releases or official letters, offering instead his own ‘thank you’ letter to be sent to both Mr Grant and deputy prime minister Warren Truss for recent funding announcements for the Tweed.
‘I won’t be controlled in what I say, I’ll write all my own statements in my term of office, so if it’s my name on the bottom, I’ve written it myself, anything else is deceptive,’ he said to applause from some the public gallery at the meeting held at the Pottsville Community Centre.
‘I’m bucking against that trend of the past and putting an end to the practice where the mayors had everything written for them and controlled,’ Cr Bagnall said.
Cr Bagnall also read out a letter he wrote to Mr Provest asking him to apologise to Mr Grant for his $10,000 tourism-sign announcement not getting the publicity it ‘deserved’ and explaining the background to his CSG comments in a draft council press release last month which he rejected and which led him to accuse the two National Party politicians of trying to gag him over his stand against CSG mining.
Cr Longland responded in a scathing attack on Cr Bagnall, accusing him of ‘showering’ him and council officers with ‘derision’.
He said his ‘unusual’ notice of motion was sparked by ‘highly inflammable political quotes’ made to media by the mayor.
Cr Longland said that in his three years as mayor ‘nothing went out’ of his office which he didn’t approve and press releases were often written by council’s media unit staff because ‘it’s why we have them’.
He said his motion, seconded by Cr Byrne, was ‘not aimed at having a dig at the new mayor’ but that the mayor needed to ‘learn about diplomacy’.
‘It’s most disingenuous of Cr Bagnall to portray himself as the white knight who won’t be controlled,’ Cr Longland said.
Cr Polglase said he had been mayor for five terms, spending 23 years as a Tweed councillor, and it was usual practice for council staff to open the mayor’s mail for registration and for press releases to be readjusted by staff.
He said Cr Bagnall’s comments about council press releases were ‘very derogatory’ of the media unit staff and he was tempted to move a vote of no confidence in the mayor because of that ‘attack’.
He said Tweed council was one of the top shires in the state, but ‘before long they’ll be at the bottom of the heap’.
Cr Byrne said she was ‘concerned about the ability of the mayor to work with staff’ and that there was concern in the business community about his leadership ’and the way you go about things’.
Cr Michael Armstrong said he was saddened by row being aired in public, saying it would have been better dealt with by councillors among themselves, but then attacked Cr Longland for ‘endorsing’ the sitting National Party state MP (Mr Provest) in his letter.
Cr Armstrong, a member of the Labor Party, said he had ’grave concern’ about the letter requiring the mayor to sign, ‘as it could be seen to be the council organisation or the shire’s population endorsing candidates and I don’t think that’s appropriate’.
‘It’s only about six or seven months away from the state election and this letter endorses the political performance of the current state MP,’ he said.
Cr Armstrong said the letter suggested the MP was doing a good job, but many locals have concerns he is not delivering outcomes for the community, such as the long-awaited Pottsville High School.
‘I’d hate to think the state government would endorse candidates at a local level, and we started to do the same,’ he said.
Cr Bagnall ended the prickly debate by saying ‘what we’re seeing tonight is a return to the Inquisition where people are forced to sign letters they don’t agree with and I won’t be part of that’.
He said he would not sign the letter under any circumstances because it was ‘bullying me to give political leverage to the National Party’.
Cr Longland’s letter reads:
Dear Deputy Premier. I am writing to convey the appreciation of the Council for your welcome support with the provision of State Government funding for entry signage to NSW at Tweed Heads following your announcement on site on 24 October. Council has noted some negative publicity around the launch event that might have detracted from its significance. This related to the Council’s position on the coal seam gas industry of which I am sure you would be aware. It is regrettable that this issue, which has been separately dealt with in other forums, was allowed to get in the way of what was a great example of the positive engagement we have enjoyed with the NSW Government over recent times. The Council places a high value on our relationship with your Government and we wish to also acknowledge the work of our two local State members for Tweed and Lismore for their support and advocacy. They are the conduit between our levels of Government and play an important role in Council’s capacity to deliver good outcomes for our residents. Council seeks to retain a continuing strong partnership with the State Government and the Council looks forward to welcoming you again when you next visit the Tweed.
Cr Gary Bagnall
Late this morning Cr Bagnall told Echonetdaily that his great grandfather Robert Shannon had found himself in similar trouble for ‘bucking the system’ more than 100 years ago in Sydney
He said the Wagga Wagga Advertiser reported in 1894 that a judge had overturned a sentenced handed down on Shannon by a Glebe Point magistrate of two hours in the stocks for working on a Sunday, which was prohibited at the time.