A Tweed Shire councillor who suddenly resigned last night has blamed the pro-development faction on council for forcing his hand.
Cr Michael Armstrong also singled out Cr Barry Longland for leading a successful move last week to reject Cr Armstrong’s apology for being away from the council meeting due to family-health issues.
In his resignation statement last night, Cr Armstrong said he held ‘grave fears for the future of the Tweed’ because council was being ‘increasingly dominated’ by the pro-development faction due to Cr Longland’s ‘change of heart’ last year.
(Cr Longland, who was elected on a progressive platform and served as mayor for two terms from 2011-2014, failed to retain the mayoralty last year, and has since voted more often with the conservative, National Party-aligned bloc of Crs Warren Polglase, Phil Youngblutt and Carolyn Byrne on major issues).
Cr Armstrong, who was backed by Labor when first elected in September 2012, has been working in Coonabarabran, central NSW, for the past six months as a casual teacher in order to support his parents as his father undergoes cancer treatment.
As a result he’s been unable to attend some council meetings this year and had hoped to return soon, but his ’very sad family circumstances’ had left him no other option but to quit.
Council now will have to decide whether to have a by-election before the next full election, scheduled for September 2016, but Cr Armstrong says he’s been advised that would cost ratepayers at least $400,000.
Echonetdaily understands that a former Tweed councillor some years ago was given official leave of absence for over a year off to travel overseas, with no resignation necessary.
Cr Armstrong told Echonetdaily he had emailed his council colleagues last night to tell them of his decision, and also admonished them, saying they should ‘grow up, stop all the bickering’, ‘leave their egos out’ and that they should instead be ‘working together for the community’.
‘Let’s face it, the pro-development faction with Barry Longland now has control of council, they have done since Cr Gary Bagnall was elected mayor last September, so they don’t need a by-election because they have the numbers now, and it’s been running against the progressives since then,’ he said.
He said mayor Bagnall and Greens Cr Katie Milne were now ‘the lone opposition’ against the pro-development faction.
Cr Longland said Cr Armstrong had made a ‘very courageous decision and I admire his commitment to his family and their best interests’, praising his ‘intellectual input to good decisions in the two years he was my deputy’.
Cr Milne said Cr Armstrong’s reasons for absence were ‘obviously genuine and unavoidable and it was ‘extremely regrettable that councillors chose not to grant leave to you in this difficult time’.
‘Such unwarranted lack of support was one of the lowest points in this council’s history and I’m sorry you and your family had to endure that on top of everything else you were going through,’ she said.
‘Your polite and professional contribution to council was greatly valued and will be sorely missed. Unfortunately I have little faith that the spirit of democracy will prevail to fill your place,’ Cr Milne said.
Cr Bagnall now finds himself in a similar minority situation to that of neighbouring Byron shire mayor Simon Richardson, who doesn’t have the numbers to sway major issues after his former Greens colleague Cr Rose Wanchap defected from the party to vote consistently with the National Party pro-development faction on that council.
Cr Longland this morning told Echonetdaily that he voted for Cr Bagnall as mayor, despite Cr Bagnall ‘shamefully’ and publicly ‘backstabbbing him’ in the lead up to that mayoral vote.
Cr Longland said Cr Armstrong was given a leave of absence for ‘nine meetings he didn’t attend up to the last one with my support’.
‘An email came through from him only a couple of hours before the last meeting seeking a further leave of absence for the 10th meeting that he would not be attending this year. I didn’t support that and afterwards sent him (an explanatory email),’ Cr Longland told Echonetdaily.
In that email, he wrote ‘Please be assured that there was nothing personal in that decision and I will continue to support your absence in the upcoming meetings until things can stabilise in your private life. I guess I wanted to reflect a sentiment that I’m hearing in the community that it would be good to have you back to participate in the occasional Council meeting/event.
‘I appreciate the logistical effort that would be involved in getting up here and the impact that your absence would have on the family. However, your occasional presence in the chamber will have a significant positive effect on our council’s reputation in the community,’ Cr Longland told Cr Armstrong.
It is no secret that the former relationship Cr Longland and Armstrong had as mayor and deputy respectively soured after Cr Bagnall was elected mayor, with Cr Longland then voting for the Nationals’ Phil Youngblutt as (current) deputy mayor.
He said his reasons for that was because Cr Armstrong had ‘broken a commitment’ to vote for him to continue as mayor and his part in Cr Bagnall’s ‘ascendancy’ as mayor.
‘However, I do acknowledge that voting for Phil was one of the most difficult decisions I have had to make as a councillor,’ he said.
Council general manager Troy Green said Cr Armstrong ‘has made a significant contribution in his term and I have witnessed firsthand his passion and care for people’.
‘During the last few months, Michael has remained in regular contact with me and has continued to advocate on behalf of the community in which he represented,’ Mr Green said.
‘I understand that his decision would have been extremely difficult for him personally, but the fact that he has placed his family before himself is reflective of his character.’
Mr Green said he would recommend at the next council meeting for council to ask the local government minister ‘to order that the vacancy not be filled given that it is only 14 months out from the next ordinary meeting’.
Cr Michael Armstrong’s full statement:
It is with great sadness that I today announce my resignation as a Councillor from the Tweed Shire Council.
For the past six months I have balanced my responsibilities as a Councillor with the needs of my family as I believed that I would be able to return to the Tweed. However, it is now obvious that my family’s circumstances will not permit such a return in the foreseeable future.
I am disappointed that I am unable to continue as a Councillor as I have grave fears for the future of the Tweed.
Since Cr Longland’s change of heart last year, the Tweed Shire Council has been increasingly dominated by the pro-development faction of Councillor Byrne and Nationals Councillors Youngblutt and Polglase.
I fear that the good work that our Council had started during the previous two years will be increasingly unravelled and that, regardless of my involvement as a Councillor, this will continue to be the case.
While a Councillor I have been very grateful to be able to work with locals to be able to deliver real progress on a number of fronts.
Together we have voiced concerns over damage to our environment and have successfully reduced the potential for harm posed by some developments. We have worked together to ensure that planning has started for the Community, Sporting, and Culture services our community will need in the future.
I am also particularly pleased that I have been able to voice the concerns of those pensioners and families who have been doing it tough and worked with them to protect affordable housing and to stop unnecessary rates rises through Council imposing an environmental levy.
The future of the Tweed is now in the hands of the six remaining Councillors.
Given that the term for this Council expires next year, it is now for them to decide whether there is a need for a by-election.
It will also be up to them to make important decisions for our future, particularly how to balance the need for development with the need to protect the environment and our community.
I would like to thank the community for their support and understanding.
In particular I would like to thank my fellow Labor Party members and our Federal Member Justine Elliot for their support since my election and in particular their support for my family through this difficult time.
I also acknowledge the honesty, integrity, and selflessness of Mayor Bagnall and Councillor Milne whom I know will continue to work tirelessly for the benefit ofall the people who live in the Tweed.
I wish the Tweed well for the future.
[More to come]