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Byron Shire
February 28, 2021

Byron mayor handballs questions on staff powers back to staff

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The aggressive pursuit in the courts of the personal information of Butler Street residents by Council staff late last year has been revisited after a question put to the mayor by activist John Anderson was handballed back to staff to answer.

Yet staff say there is a tighter policy in place now, which provides ‘restriction and guidance’ concerning legal proceedings.

In November 2017, The Echo reported that Council staff failed in their legal bid to force the Butler Street Community Network to supply membership and donor names and addresses, without informing councillors.

Residents had challenged Council’s contentious bypass plans on Butler Street.

Both mayor Simon Richardson (Greens) and Cr Paul Spooner (Labor) told The Echo at the time that they were not informed of staff’s request to the courts for the personal information of the residents’ group.

Recollection

Yet now, Cr Richardson has told The Echo his recollection ‘was that councillors were informed as the process unfolded’.

After Anderson brought up the issue during Council’s public access, the mayor said he would be ‘happy to follow it up.’

The long-awaited reply to Anderson’s question was instead provided by a ‘legal counsel’ and was published in the minutes of Council’s ordinary meeting of June 21.

The debacle late last year was part of broader gaffes and indiscretions by Council, which led to councillors engaging in a public-relations exercise with its solutions panel.   

Mayor Simon Richardson (Greens) explained why he did not personally follow up on why staff had taken it upon themselves to pursue the private information of residents through the courts.

He told The Echo last week, ‘This is all a while ago now, but basically, rather than spend a lot of time going through old emails of questions, I asked staff regarding Council’s attempts to recover costs. I simply requested staff provide me with the list and correspondence. When they  did this, I then had them forward it on to John Anderson. 

‘My recollection was that councillors were informed as the process unfolded. It wouldn’t be unusual for Council to commence proceedings to recover costs after a decision without first asking councillors, though when we were alerted to the issues involved, councillors requested further updates and information. 

‘Council has to walk a fine line and, like most hard decisions, there are usually complex considerations and shades of grey rather than black-and-white answers. On one hand, if any group of residents took Council to court over something happening next to them, like a new road, or they wanted rock walls, or opposed an infrastructure upgrade and when they lost they claimed they were a community group and acting in the public interest a lot of ratepayer money could be lost, yet at the same time we want a vigilant community to be able to use the court system to tackle an issue.’ 

Cr Spooner was contacted in relation to this story but no reply was received by deadline.

Staff reply

Council’s legal officer Ralph James told The Echo, ‘All legal proceedings, whether commenced or defended by Council, are reported to both the executive team and the councillors, on a monthly basis via the legal services status report.’

‘That report sets out the nature and status (at the time of the report) of the proceedings together with the costs expended in respect of the proceedings up to the date of the report.

‘In addition some legal proceedings are also reported to both the executive team and the councillors by memorandum outside, but in addition to, the legal services status report framework.’

Restriction/guidance

Mr James continued, ‘Following the appointment on July 2, 2018 of the general manager [Mark Arnold], it was considered appropriate that there be a form of restriction or guidance concerning legal proceedings in which Council is a party and that the limit of authority delegated to the general manager concerning legal proceedings ought be consistent irrespective of whether Council’s involvement is as the commencing or defending party.

‘An amendment to the general manager’s delegations concerning legal proceedings was therefore recommended by staff.’


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