Seven people have put up their hands to be the next mayor of Ballina, including incumbent David Wright.
Whoever wins will have to face the ongoing issue of how to deal with shark attacks at the shire’s beaches, which, while it is officially a state responsibility, has drawn strong reactions from residents over the past 18 months in particular.
Cr Wright was widely seen as a safe pair of hands when long-time mayor Phil Silver resigned last election, and his record on a wide range of issues has been moderate, with the council largely avoiding the wide divisions seen in neighbouring Byron and Tweed.
But the ‘eco shark barrier’, which was announced as the preferred solution for Lighthouse Beach, has been unpopular with surfers, who see it as wrecking their break, and plagued with continuing installation problems.
Whether his endorsement of this contentious solution will be enough to prevent Cr Wright gaining a second term is yet to be seen but voters will certainly have plenty of options to choose from.
It’s rare to see someone not already a sitting councillor take the top job first up. This probably rules out Phil Meehan (although he is the husband of popular retiring councillor Sue Meehan) and Ray Karam.
Karam is not a resident of Ballina Shire, which will probably work against him. His membership of and advocacy for the controversial group Universal Medicine is also unlikely to go in his favour.
The remaining five are all sitting councillors: Sharon Cadwallader, Jeff Johnson, Ben Smith and Keith Williams, together with mayor Wright.
Cr Smith is an unremarkable conservative who has added little to council debate over his two terms. He’s likely to direct preferences to the more popular National Party member, Cr Cadwallader.
Although not standing as a Nationals candidate, Cr Cadwallader will have trouble distancing herself from unpopular aspects of government policy that affect the shire, especially the shark issue.
This leaves councillors Johnson and Williams.
Both have taken broadsides at mayor Wright recently, Cr Johnson over council’s last-minute decision to allow Boral to expand its bitumen batching plant in the middle of suburban Alstonville, and Cr Williams over the potential sale of or tender to operate Ballina Airport, which the council owns.
Cr Johnson, this year standing as an Independent, was elected as a Greens candidate last time around but stood down to contest the state seat of Ballina as an independent after he missed out on the party’s nomination. This may cost him some Greens votes (although the party doesn’t have a candidate standing for mayor). Nevertheless, he’s a strong campaigner and shouldn’t be written off.
His strongest win in this term of council was to get support for an ocean pool at East Ballina.
Cr Williams is the former CEO of Australian Seabird Rescue, based in Ballina, and has been a strong advocate on coastal issues, including the dredging of the Richmond River mouth.
He is a member of the Labor Party but, as with the Nationals’ Cadwallader, has not been nominated as an official party candidate.
As a first termer, it remains to be seen whether he has left a strong enough impression in the minds of voters to earn him the top job this time around.
Ballina operates on a ward system, which sees three nominees from each ward elected to the full body of council.
The problem with this system is that despite a large field overall, some wards in the past have had only as many nominees as councillors. This has seen untalented and unqualified candidates ‘elected’ automatically, ahead of more suitable and popular candidates in other wards.
This won’t be a problem this time around, with at least four candidates standing in each of the wards.
An interesting scenario will play out in A ward, where all the sitting candidates have retired, leaving an open field of six newcomers, only half of whom can be elected.
This includes the abovementioned Phil Meehan and Ray Karam, together with Greens candidate Steve Posselt and independents (we use that term advisedly) Stephen McCarthy, Nathan Willis and Ian Hush.
An almost reverse situation exists in B ward, where sitting councillors Cadwallader, Williams and Johnson are being challenged by first-time Greens candidate Nathan Cooper, of Brooklet.
In C ward, sitting councillors Smith and Wright have a string of ‘independents’ chasing their seat: Therese Crollick, Elva Fitzell, Michelle Lake, Eoin Johnson, Vanessa Barrett, Ronald Birch and Sharon Parry. The only party-endorsed candidate is Gail Mensinga, for the Greens.