Byron Shire Mayor Simon Richardson has defended two code of conduct (CoC) complaints against him over an alleged close association with an affordable-housing proposal, and pursuing – through compliance staff – a vocal critic of Council and that affordable housing project.
Saddle Ridge Community Action Group president Matthew O’Reilly lodged the complaints and supporting documents last week.
Mr O’Reilly claims the mayor has a non-pecuniary interest in the Saddle Road Bruns Eco Village (BEV) proposal, which is located on the northern end of Saddle Road, near the Brunswick Heads interchange.
A planning proposal for BEV and the entire surrounds was recently submitted to Council. As reported last week, it was an invitation to the landowners, asked for by the mayor and supporting councillors at the June 22 meeting. While it falls outside conventional planning strategies, 475 homes are proposed by five landowners across 52–112 hectares, with 20 per cent pegged as affordable housing.
Mr O’Reilly says in his first complaint, ‘The mayor has appeared in public with members of the Bruns Eco Village leadership group on a number of occasions over the last twelve months and has publicly expressed support for their development.’
Additionally, Mr O’Reilly calls for the mayor to be referred to the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) ‘for not declaring gifts of professional services relating to his website.’
He writes, ‘Mairead Cleary, who is on the committee of Bruns Eco Village and is their media spokesperson, was acknowledged by the mayor as updating the style of his e-newsletter.’
While the mayor’s reply did not address Ms Cleary’s assistance with his newsletter, Ms Cleary told Echonetdaily she had given sporadic and minimal help on the mayor’s newsletter since 2013.
She said, ‘I started receiving Simon’s newsletter in April 2013. After receiving the July 2013 edition of the newsletter I reached out to Simon and offered to help with editing it. The newsletter, as I saw it, had interesting content but the layout and editing made it difficult to read.
‘My motivation was thus: I see many worthwhile initiatives around here that fail to communicate well about themselves (particularly environmental initiatives). Because of that they often fail to connect with the people who align with what they’re about which I feel is a great shame. If I am drawn to offer advice to people or organisations in an area where I have experience (communication) I am going to do that of my own volition.
‘I have given sporadic and, in the context of time, minimal help on the newsletter since then.
‘In April 2016 Kelvin Daly contacted me to discuss the possibility of my doing some writing work for the project. That was my first knowledge of Kelvin or the BEV project. I have subsequently been involved as a consultant.
‘In May 2017, Simon put out a public call on his newsletter asking for help to get his newsletter design up to date. Considering I had helped on the newsletter in the past, I responded saying that if no one else came forward I would be willing to do it. Nobody else responded to the call-out. When the first newsletter came out in the new format Simon openly acknowledged my help.
‘As a consultant I believe I can exercise my right to offer services to anyone in the community without permission. I am not affiliated with any one organisation and in fact consult to many organisations simultaneously.
‘I am not the official spokesperson for Bruns Eco Village. I did however send a media release to The Echo in June 2017 and was named as the spokesperson in that editorial.
‘I believe this complaint to be disingenuous.’
Mayor Richardson told Echonetdaily, ‘This is complete nonsense and beneath Matthew.’
‘I was asked to be a panel member focused on finding solutions to the current affordable-housing crisis, with a byline of putting humanity into housing.
‘It was hosted and facilitated by COREM/Renewfest as part of their Mullum Music Festival stream of panels and workshops. I attended, as I support COREM and Renewfest, and would do anything I could to help them.’
The mayor added that earlier in the year, Council also hosted an affordable-housing forum which was ‘attended by many councillors and myself. Kelvin Daly also spoke on his vision, as did others who are working on trying to unlock some of the housing challenges both here and around the country.’
‘Obviously when a proposal is actually before councillors for consideration, we observe clear and transparent protocols when in the vicinity of proponents and do our best to make informed, considered and timely decisions – as is our role and is expected of us.’
Meanwhile, the second complaint centres around alleged vexatious behaviour against Mr O’Reilly by the mayor and staff, and includes email exchanges between staff and the mayor that were obtained via a freedom of information request.
Mr O’Reilly alleges the pursuit of approved activities on the property he manages on behalf of his family is a result of questioning the mayor’s perceived non-pecuniary interest in BEV.
He said, ‘I can see no other reason for the mayor and staff to have reopened their compliance action on our property, when it was effectively closed on March 26.’
Echonetdaily was provided with Mr O’Reilly’s NSW Department Primary Industry (DPI) authorisation for timber plantation works from May 2, 2017. Overall, Mr O’Reilly claims 12 development activities were approved on the Saddle Road property he manages, which includes earthworks, roadworks, drainage and fencing.
Despite claims by Mr O’Reilly that he provided Council at the time with his DPI approvals, Byron Shire Council made a complaint over earthworks and roadworks to the DPI, who then undertook an audit on December 14, 2017.
The DPI audit, as supplied to Echonetdaily, found compliance in all areas where works had been completed, except for where batters needed cover to stabilise the road and drainage.
Yet according to the emails supplied to Echonetdaily, there was no mention of any DPI approvals between staff and the mayor.
Remarkably, the mayor did not answer Echonetdaily’s question as to whether staff advised him that Mr O’Reilly’s land clearing was lawful.
The mayor replied, ‘I simply enquired about obvious, large scale and visible land clearing.’
‘I, like many others, were shocked at the extent of the land clearing and internal road construction and so I asked staff about it as councillors are usually aware of land clearing of this scale. I was informed that staff had serious concerns about it and were looking to commence some follow up. I later discovered it was Matthew O Reilly’s land.
‘Of course I was keen for the matter to be determined and I still am.
‘We simply need to know if the land clearing was unlawful or not – this is not about Matthew O’Reilly, it is about land clearing.
‘I have requested information from staff about many issues and generally request often until I get information. In fact, for a similar land clearing matter in Federal I probably sent twice as many emails requesting information.
‘Council is also determined to publicly provide information on land clearing matters as a possible deterrent and to highlight the importance of appropriate behaviour, hence the reference to a media release- we do this for dog attacks for the same reasons.
‘This series of code of conduct threats seem more about finding a way for me not vote on any forthcoming saddle road development proposals rather than any crusade for truth.
‘It reminds me of the four or so code of conduct complaints I received over a couple of weeks from some of the previous councillors, who tried to silence me over important matters.
‘I was elected to represent the whole community, not bow to Matthew O’Reilly or any other Saddle Road resident, and when any proposal from Saddle Road comes before me for determination I, like the rest of the councillor body, will vote on it using all the information available and in an appropriately professional manner.’
Meanwhile, a conciliation hearing between the two parties is set for April 26, where Mr O’Reilly is seeking to have Council’s prevention notice on his works removed.
‘We went out of our way to comply with Council’s [initial] prevention order,’ Mr O’Reilly said.
‘Our experts advised us that we were already in compliance with relevant regulations, but our lawyer advised it was easier to just do what Council wanted, rather than try and appeal such a low level infringement.’
‘So we did the extra things Council wanted, but then after that was all done, they added three extra conditions without warning.
‘One of those extra conditions was to seal all the farm tracks and forestry roads on the property within seven days. Our lawyers asked Council to withdraw these extra conditions, but they did not, so we had no choice but to appeal the entire prevention notice.’
Two public complaints against the works were lodged on March 1 and 11, says Mr O’Reilly. ‘Council then did a formal inspection in relation to those complaints on March 25, but the compliance report closed the matter and did not have any problem with environmental issues. Everything blew up again in July after the mayor intervened.’
Mr O’Reilly added, ‘Four months on from when [staff] first advised the mayor that what we were doing appeared “illegal,” we have still not had any written advice from the Council in this matter.’