Tweed Shire Council last night opted not to have a by-election to replace a councillor who resigned suddenly this week under pressure from his political opponents.
The decision came after a fiery debate in which mayor Gary Bagnall stopped the meeting for 15 minutes, annoyed at the repeated interjections during his move to seek a by-election to fill the vacancy left by Cr Michael Armstrong who quit on Wednesday night.
Foregoing a by-election was described by minority progressive councillors as ‘a sad day for democracy’, but welcomed by the new conservative majority as saving ratepayers’ money.
This morning, Cr Bagnall said he feared the shire faces a ’12-month storm’ of unpopular developments being ’pushed through’ by the conservative National Party aligned faction which has the vital majority for at least 14 months till the September 2016 election.
Cr Armstrong, who was elected on a Labor Party platform in the 2012 election, blamed the pro-development faction on council for forcing his hand, singling out Cr Barry Longland for leading the push last week to reject his apology for being away from the council meeting due to family-health issues.
The issue appears to have bitterly divided council and the 4-2 vote not to apply to the local government minister for the by-election (Crs Bagnall and the Greens’ Katie Milne voted against) largely reflected the bloc voting pattern on other issues in the council agenda last night.
The latest spat between the two camps has also seen a deepening of the rift between mayor Bagnall and Cr Longland who he replaced last September in the role, and who is understood not to have spoken to the mayor since he lost the top job.
The feud is bound to spill into this September’s mayoral election and Cr Bagnall, having lost a supporter in Cr Armstrong, now looks like losing that role in the political numbers game with the three pro-development councillors Warren Polglase, Phil Youngblutt and Carolyn Byrne likely to get their choice up.
That possibility was no doubt in the back of the mayor’s mind when he made a passionate appeal in his bid to hold a by-election so as not to ‘disadvantage the community’ which will be left ‘unrepresented’.
‘Several thousand people in the community voted for Cr Armstrong, and they’re now at a loss, so a large swag of people out there are not represented here,’ he said.
‘And it does make a difference, someone can lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in a drop by a vote in this council when their view or amenity is affected by a developer’s plans.
‘We’re talking millions (of dollars) can be wiped out in a moment in this council,’ he said.
Cr Byrne had argued a by-election would burden ratepayers with around $400,000 in cost for eight (ordinary) meetings left in the current term of council.
She said a six-councillor panel could still continue to work as a council effectively.
But Cr Katie Milne said she held grave concerns with the loss of progressive Cr Armstrong and council now appeared un-democratic with his loss which was ‘a real poor outcome for residents’.
‘I urge you to keep in mind the spirit of Cr Armstrong when voting because we have that duty to represent all our community, not just our own (supporters),’ she said.
‘I’s a very sad day for democracy, but I hope the democratic spirit prevails.
’Its’ now not a case of council representing the community, we’re in desperate need of councillors who will support the community,’ she said.
Cr Longland said he acknowledged Cr Armstrong’s input to council, that he had ‘added intellectual rigour to our debate’ and would be ‘missed’.
Cr Polglase said he objected to being ‘admonished like schoolchildren’ over the issue but that ‘democracy in the Tweed will still move forward’.
He said ‘political philosophical differences’ were common in local government and ‘that’s the way it is’.
But the mayor this morning claims Cr Armstrong had been ‘pushed out’ to ‘get him out of the way before the mayoral election’ in September so the conservative faction could ‘take control of council and ram projects through’ for the developer lobby.
He said the estimated $200,000-$301,000 needed to stage a by-election was ‘a drop in the bucket’ compared to the ‘millions’ that would be spent to facilitate controversial developments pushed through by one faction on council.
‘Cr Polglase, with his three votes, now has the power to call up any DA (development application) which has been knocked back for years, and push them all through, with or without Cr Longland’s vote, as he has the numbers and casting vote .
‘So the cost of a by election of around $200,000 to protect the Tweed from overdevelopment is nothing compared to what thse guys (big developers) can do.
‘The Tweed is now in peril, we could have a 12-month storm here, that’s why it’s vital to replace Cr Armstrong,’ Cr Bagnall said.
The mayor surprised the public gallery last night when ‘dismissing’ council for 15 minutes due to what he later told media was Cr Polglase’s ‘rudeness’ by interjecting while he was addressing council.
Cr Polglase had made an aside that Cr Bagnall had ‘only got two-and-a-half thousand votes’ at the last election.
An annoyed Cr Phil Youngblutt objected to the break in the debate, saying it was ‘nonsense’ and ‘we should go to dinner’.
Cr Youngblutt had also argued that the two minority councillors had ‘assumed that s Labor person will get back in, but we represent the entire population whether they voted for us or not’.
The vote for a poll was lost 2-4, along the same factional lines (Crs Bagnall and Milne against).
The issue was brought to a head earlier this month when the pro-development faction with Cr Longland on board voted against giving Cr Armstrong a leave of absence, an unusual move and likely the first time in council history.
Cr Armstrong faced the possibility of being excluded from council after only a few such refusals and is believed to have jumped rather than be pushed.
Cr Longland claimed his push against approving the leave was ‘to reflect the concerns of residents about Armstrong’s frequent absences’.
The former mayor’s relationship with the current one is now all but over given the latest political stoush, and switch of support where Cr Longland now votes more often with the pro-development bloc on contentious issues.
A council watcher told Echonetdaily that last night’s meeting was ‘shameful’… where ‘four of the six councillors were rude, spiteful and arrogant’.
‘They have a stranglehold on the mayor’, the blogger said.