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.
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.
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.