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MP Cusack attacks community centre and councillor

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NSW Liberal MLC Catherine Cusack

A north coast Liberal MLC launched an extraordinary attack on a Byron Shire Councillor and the Byron Bay Community Centre under parliamentary privilege in the Upper House on Wednesday.

Under parliamentary privilege, speeches made within the chamber by MPs are exempt from defamation court cases.

Lennox Head based MP Catherine Cusack called for a review of Byron Community Centre’s governance and accused Cr Paul Spooner, who is also the BBCC general manager, of bullying a Rainbow Markets stallholder who opposed council’s plan to relocate the markets.

Byron Shire councillor and Byron Community Centre CEO, Paul Spooner.

Cr Spooner confirmed with Echonetdaily that stallholder Ian Brown was suspended for three months after market staff and stallholders complained of his behaviour. The identity of the accusers has been kept confidential, even to Mr Brown.

Cr Spooner told Echonetdaily, ‘The accusations were verified – it was a clear breach of our Code of Conduct, which all stallholders sign up to. He was given a right of reply and review.’

Mr Brown denies the accusations and says he has a long and unblemished record of operating at the markets.

Echonetdaily has been supplied with character support by fellow market stallholders. Additionally stall holder Helen Burns told Echonetdaily that the Code of Conduct, ‘stated to the effect that stallholders’ agreement needed to be immediate and the terms were non-negotiable. Anyone not in agreement would be banned from the market. That sounds like duress to me. The “code” itself appears to be highly prejudicial to stallholders’ rights.’

Ms Cusack claims the Byron Community Centre management of the markets lacks transparency.

‘The tender criteria are not public,’ she said.

‘What angers me is that revenues from Butler Street Reserve should be expended on rehabilitating the drains polluting the nature reserve and Belongil Creek, but under this cute arrangement, the income is going into Paul Spooner’s pocket.’

It’s an accusation Mr Spooner strongly rejects, and told Echonetdaily the market tender process was rigorous and transparent.

‘Ms Cusack is ill-informed about issues in Byron Bay and doesn’t know what her own government is doing.’

While he agreed that the market grounds have seen little improvements over the years, he says that as BBCC lease the Council-managed reserve, council are responsible for its upkeep.

Echonetdaily understands that income that is derived from state government owned Crown assets must be reinvested back into that asset or land.

‘I pushed for improvements for Butler Street with Council’s general manager over five years ago,’ Cr Spooner said.

Ms Cusack also attacked the character of BBCC’s president, Jason Arthurton.

‘Byron Community Centre’s president is Mr Spooner’s friend, Jason Arthurton, who was the owner and chief executive officer of Wicked Travel, which went belly up last year after selling its assets to Greyhound buses. This meant the liquidators had no assets to refund holiday deposits or fund wages for hundreds of backpackers – most from overseas – because Greyhound buses had fleeced the operation. The backpackers employed by Wicked did not have access to the federal government’s employee benefits program because they were not citizens and they could not renew their 457 visas because they had lost their jobs, so they had to leave the country – happy days for Jason Arthurton!’

Cr Spooner told Echonetdaily previously that the BBCC board supported Mr Arthurton’s character and believed that media reports that raised questions around Mr Arthurton’s involvement in the liquidation of Wicked Travel were inaccurate.

Bus interchange

The promise of a transport bus interchange by the government at the last state election was a key point of Ms Cusack’s speech, and she told the chamber that a year ago, on March 8, ‘an extraordinary attack was launched upon the NSW government by the then general manager of Byron council [Ken Gainger].’

‘I was taken aback, as was the parliamentary secretary, the Hon Ben Franklin, who had been in discussions with the council about where to locate the terminal. The issue was always about the council’s master plan for the area, which was passed by a previous council.’ She went on to explain that the area was a former tip site.

She said, ‘As part of the master plan, Byron council wanted the state government to build the bus interchange on Butler Street Reserve. So we have all this political gunfire from the general manager and Transport NSW, which unfortunately has no presence in northern NSW north of Newcastle – in other words, no presence at all – engaged a consultant at the behest of Byron’s master plan. At the behest of council, theNSW government consultants came up with some Taj Mahal bus terminal, which will take out more than a quarter of the reserve, when what was needed was a bus stop for interstate buses travelling from Brisbane to Sydney. I am at a loss to understand how council, government or anybody could propose any construction on Butler Street Reserve. It is a former rubbish tip in a sand dune. It is leaching toxins into Cumbebin Nature Reserve, which feeds Belongil Creek, described by National Parks as one of the most disturbed waterway systems in the state.’

Remarkably, Cr Spooner told Echonetdaily the first councillors knew about the transport hub was around the time it become public in The Echo. He also added that the Butler Street location for the terminal was not included in the Byron Bay masterplan.

At the time, The Echo reported that staff pushed councillors to make a quick decision to approve the plans and to affirm the location, which had never been previously discussed. Questions by The Echo to the state government around transparency, the cost and suitability of the plans were never replied to.

‘The Nationals never put a figure on the upgrade of the bus transit,’ Cr Spooner said. ‘The Butler Street location came out of the blue.’

Yet there is a difference of opinion regarding whether the Butler Street location for the bus terminal was included in the masterplan; Ms Cusack said, ‘The reason I say the masterplan drove the [terminal] location is because on page 31 of the Byron Masterplan (2016), Butler Street Reserve is nominated as part of an integrated transport hub.’

And Council’s suggestion to relocate 350 stalls to the beachfront while the bus terminal was being constructed was also criticised by Ms Cusack as ‘even more environmentally bizarre.’

‘I wonder what Byron Shire Council was inhaling when it came up with that ridiculous plan,’ she said.

Echonetdaily asked Ms Cusack if she contacted Mr Spooner prior to the speech, and she replied, ‘It is correct I did not contact Mr Spooner who has a voice as a councillor, and CEO of the BCC. My role is to give a voice to those who don’t have one.’

As for service delivery of the BBCC, Ms Cusack said their staff costs totalled $634,545, ‘[which is] two thirds of the $952,548.06 operating budget.’

‘Their main activities appear to be maintaining the building, operating the theatre and running the markets. This is reflected in their government grants from Crown Lands for the building and the arts for theatre seats and the main BBCC fundraising project is “comfy bums” to match arts funding for new theatre seats. There are some services, but relatively few compared with other NGOs in the welfare space with a similar wages bill.’

‘Over the past five years, the BBCC has received $1.545 million in fees from markets at Butler Street Reserve. They have paid $53,570 in licenses and fees and I assume most of that has been paid to Byron Council for the right to manage the markets. Byron Council also receives an unknown sum in parking revenues and fines from cars parked on the reserve.

‘None of these funds have been re-invested by BBCC or Byron Council in the Reserve for market facilities or to rehabilitate the drains carrying toxic leachate into the Nature Reserve. It is absolutely outrageous – the Reserve is in desperate need and yet it is being bled dry for non-reserve purposes. As a Byron Shire Councillor, Paul Spooner is a Trustee for Butler Reserve. As CEO of BBCC, he is licensee for Butler Reserve. And yet, Paul Spooner shrugs his shoulders and says, “Its nothing to do with me”, while $1.5 million public reserve income pours into his organisation and not one penny is returned to the Reserve or its users. What’s wrong with this picture?’

‘Paul Spooner has characterised my speech as an attack on Byron Bay Community Centre. This is masterful distraction. The issue is Butler Reserve, his administration of the licenses to operate markets and yes, I criticised the governance arrangements of BBCC as licensees for the Reserve. The issue has escalated because of his suspension of Ian Brown and that was made very clear in my speech.

‘There are excellent services operating out of the Community Centre and at no time have I reflected on those services or the volunteers. Paul Spooner’s response is deliberately misdirected and I repeat, addresses none of the issues raised in my speech.’

Cr Spooner supplied Echonetdaily with figures of how much the BBCC contributed to the community in the last year, as compared with what Ms Cusack has contributed. They include hot meals provided: 29,500, hot showers: 350, seniors activities: 104, personal care kits distributed: 92, training provided to women in need: 24, frozen meals distributed: 3,500, community events sponsored: 100, community service excellence awards: three, no interest loans provided: 877, amount raised for other not for profits: $18,500.

Cr Spooner claims Ms Cusack has contributed nothing of service except defending one workplace bully.

‘The Byron Community Centre would welcome Ms Cusack making her claims outside parliament, or even better coming to the Community Centre to see first hand the vital work we do. Ms Cusack has an open invitation.’

‘It does everyone, including Ms Cusack and her colleagues, a disservice to make misinformed statements and use parliamentary privilege to tower over local, not-for-profit community organisations.’

Cr Spooner added, ‘The upper house is often referred to as the coward’s castle. I’d suggest Ms Cusack try and say those things outside parliament and let’s see what happens.’

– This story was amended on March 12, 2018 to reflect that the accusers of Mr Brown are unknown to him and the public.

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  1. ‘Lennox Head based MP Catherine Cusack called for a review of Byron Community Centre’s governance…’

    This is a worthy cause.But could she please pay attention to home and review the Ballina council plan to close the Lake Ainsworth car park/lake access?

    Please note: 1. The 4,000 residents who signed a petition opposing the car park closure 2.The more than 4,000 people who submitted letters to the council to oppose the development application.

  2. I hope the Echo continues to attempt to dig into this issue. From the report I cannot see why Ms Cusack (who has a history taking a fairly independent stand on various issues) would have any inappropriate motivation. But of course I could be wrong.

  3. She also said …but under this cute arrangement the income is going into Paul Spooner’s pocket. Why does that not get an airing as it is a very serious allegation.

  4. Paul Spooner’s inference that all stallholders voluntarily agreed to his “code of conduct” might be construed as misleading. The “code” was issued a matter of days before the next Byron Community Market and it stated to the effect that stallholders’ agreement needed to be immediate and the terms were non-negotiable. Anyone not in agreement would be banned from the market. That sounds to me like duress. On the heels of this, the Rainbow Region Stallholders Association sent Mr. Spooner a notice stating that any agreement to the “code” by our members may be subject to us obtaining independent legal advice. The “code” itself appears to be highly prejudicial to the rights of stallholders. A number of its more poorly defined provisions are open to possible abuse and discriminatory behaviour by Market Management. Ethics aside, the legality of the “code”, and the way in which it has been applied, is presently the subject of investigation on a number of fronts. The fact that this type of issue needs to be dealt with at all suggests forces at work behind the scenes that have little to do with ensuring the harmonious operation of a community market.

  5. If part of Byron Council want a Byron CBD Bypass and that Bypass is to travel down Butler Street, then there is little incentive for the NSW state government to reinvest the Markets income into the Butler Street Reserve.

  6. I applaud Catherine Cusack for calling this mess into question and speaking up for so many who no longer have a voice and are intimidated, dictated & lied to by BCC management. Whilst I give thanks to all the amazing volunteers from BCC who give there time & energy to facilitating these services to the community. I understand Catherine’s voice to be clearly expressing the concerns of so many for what is going on behind the scenes. For the amount of money that is being generated by the 350 + small local businesses over the monthly, artistisan & beachfront markets we are often experiencing the lack of the most basic necessities. There is a lack of bins, toilets & toilet paper, shade, seating, maintenance to the Butler Street site, and effective management processes. Butler street is dusty, dirty & very neglected. One would think with the markets being such a large & fundamental income source for the centre – that something would be given back ? Stallholders have continually been made promises for making Butler Street to become a healthier, functional & more atmospheric environment to trade from. After nearly 40 years we still wait…. Upon questioning Spooner on numerous ( ad nauseaum ) occasions to provide a financial breakdown on how & where the money is spent we are continually met with banner figures & graphs which reveal nothing to really explain where all this money is going. Spooner takes it as far as to claim accolades for how the centre provides 29,000 + meals per calendar year for those in need. Yet he refrains from clarifying any monetary figures to actually demonstrate this point. Liberation larder is operating by the love & dedication of volunteers, and food donations by local companies. Why he feels he can claim this giving as part of his personal honor is beyond me. Furthermore, in response to the BCC management of stallholders. The most recent case of Ian Brown has been atrociously and unjustly handled. No fair policies and procedures have been used to handle this case. It has been conducted in an extremely unprofessional manner and as a result has led to many stallholders questioning his ability to continue in this role. He dishonored the faith in true and fair management relationships & processes.

  7. Ms Cusack’s daring speech has thrown a cat amongst the pigeons and incurred the wrath of the Byron elite men’s club. In typical Aussie male political style, they have turned their indignation towards her in the form of insults and veiled threats, accusing her of being non-factual and misinformed, abusing her parliamentary privilege.

    I can only thank her for calling to account those who have not been accountable, shedding light where there has been none on the hidden motivations of why Butler St Reserve has turned into the monumental stuff up it is today. It has been all too easy to cast aside one of the only remaining green spaces in Byron’s CBD as a “toxic wasteland” in the hope that the land could be grabbed for use as a Taj Mahal bus shelter, and thereby avoid any responsibility to regenerate this sad piece of land.

    Rainbow Region Stallholders Association have been calling for someone to put some of our market income into regenerating facilities and landscaping at the reserve since it’s inception in 2015. The fact remains that BCC overheads do not allow it to provide this very vital service back to the community and there are no subsidised government grants to ease that pain.

    I’ve come to realise there are always politics at play in even the most obvious or simple requests to those who govern us. Mr Spooner made an untimely political move in suspending the one stallholder whose efforts to save the reserve were commendable.

  8. Catherine

    Thanks for the links and for opposing the Lake Ainsworth road closure.

    Why are Byron and Ballina council set on trashing our traditions,markets and picnic spots? Will they please stick to collecting our rubbish and fixing pot holes.Which is what we pay rates for.

    Never voted Liberal. Never thought I would. But you have my vote

  9. OMG! Did this woman not think to check the facts and do some research before making this statement?
    It is better to remain silent and be thought of as a fool than to speak up and remove all doubt.

  10. I wish you good luck. I had to deal with Mr Arthurton before and it wasnt pleasant. I always wondered how he managed to buy a second house in Byron Bay just a few months before his company went into liquidation and managed to keep the properties under his name.


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