The danger of delegated authority as The Echo gambles its reputation on a town planner

Thirty-one years have passed since Nicholas Shand dreamed up this newspaper and gathered a band of fellow dreamers to help him make it real. In those 31 years The Echo has grown, like a magic beanstalk, far taller than we ever imagined, and it is now a feature of Shire life. Our ongoing series on the history of our beloved rainbow rag continues this week, written by the newspaper’s longest-serving drudge, David Lovejoy.

When in February 1996 Fast Buck$ obtained a file that described a developer in Byron Bay obtaining preferential treatment from Council, he published an advertisement in The Echo headed, ‘Something stinks at Hog’s Breath’. The restaurant chain Hog’s Breath had leased a site in the Cavanbah Arcade but it had nothing to do with the case, which revolved around the alleged underpayment of fees in the redevelopment of the arcade.

The owner of the property was Roger Buck, the proprietor of a real estate agency that advertised heavily with the newspaper. In the circumstances, although I couldn’t fault the facts in the ad, I felt (wrongly) obliged to warn Buck by faxing him the material before publication.

If I had wanted to prime an explosion I couldn’t have done better. BuckS sent the ad straight on to Eastcott and as soon as the paper hit the street the general manager directed his staff to cease all contact with us.

Councillor Ross Tucker.

Secret meetings

At a secret emergency Council meeting Ross Tucker did his bit by putting up resolutions to condemn The Echo and remove all Council advertising from it.

Both he and Eastcott harassed the bewildered new councillors to pass a resolution of confidence in the staff and, according to leaked reports, screamed at them in frustration when they would not do so.

The staff on the other hand were prepared to publicly criticise at least one of the councillors. Michael Molloy had received a copy of the Cavanbah Arcade file that Fast Buck$ later published, and at a meeting of Council workers Eastcott named Molloy as ‘one of the councillors interfering with the staff performing their duty’.

The meeting passed a motion of no confidence in Molloy, who resigned when he received no apology from Eastcott and no support from the mayor. His letter cited his reason as the ‘poisonous atmosphere’ engendered by the general manager.

Danger of delegation

The mayor released a statement attacking the paper’s integrity, based on misinformation given to him by the staff. We were able to refute it point by point and to enlarge on how much under-assessing contributions was costing ratepayers.

Cavanbah Arcade was not unique; there were many other examples of Eastcott failing to collect enough developer contributions – and there were worse deeds done under ‘delegated authority’, which had the effect of benefiting individual developers.

Misuse of power

Even as this drama was unfolding, a judge decided in favour of Suffolk Park residents against Council over Max’s misuse of Section 102 powers in an Eric Freeman development.

Section 102 allows minor changes in a development application to be approved without being referred back to councillors. Incidentally Freeman was an unusual figure in the controversies of the time: a follower of Bhagwan Rajneesh, he fled after the collapse of the guru’s American ashram and bought large tracts of land in Byron Shire for the purpose of residential development.

Although trivial in itself, the arcade had become the battleground. One problem was the simple intransigence of Council staff. They had mismeasured the floor space of the arcade, removing areas that their own regulations specified should be included and ignoring the encroachment of the arcade on the public carpark at the rear of the building. But although these things were pointed out, they simply repeated the mantra, ‘We have rechecked and everything is in order.’

The Echo gambles

So The Echo hired a town planner from a neighbouring shire and promised to publish his report. It was a bit of a gamble – if he had agreed with the Byron planners we would have had to grovel our way out and the future of the Shire would perhaps have been different.

But his independent calculations showed that the arcade had indeed been under-assessed – to the tune of nearly $140,000. Since similar figures applied to developments all over central Byron Bay, it was no wonder that Council was at that point selling off its assets (another focus of community anger) in order to make ends meet.

After just six months of their four-year term the new councillors had to deal with a Council and community divided as never before.

On the one side Eastcott and Tucker had plenty of support from the Council staff, from the APN-owned media, and from the tribal loyalty of the conservative businesses in the Shire (‘Let Max Eastcott Do His Job For You’ was the headline of their ad campaign). On the other side were environmental organisations, the two-thirds of Shire residents who had rejected Tucker at the election, and The Echo.

Somewhere in the middle was the mayor, apparently paralysed with indecision. ‘We were lined up all ready to go,’ recalled one councillor, ‘and he never gave the order to advance.’

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A note from the editorial team

Some of The Echo’s editorial team: journalists Paul Bibby and Aslan Shand, editor Hans Lovejoy, photographer Jeff Dawson and Mandy Nolan

The Echo has never underestimated the intelligence and passion of its readers. In a world of corporate banality and predictability, The Echo has worked hard for more than 30 years to help keep Byron and the north coast unique with quality local journalism and creative ideas. We think this area needs more voices, reasoned analysis and ideas than just those provided by News Corp, lifestyle mags, Facebook groups and corporate newsletters.

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