Answers to questions raised by Cr Basil Cameron regarding a secret meeting and a $78m funding application by staff to a federal agency to upgrade the M1 highway interchange at Byron Bay have been answered by Council’s Director Infrastructure Services, Phil Holloway.
Yet, as to be expected, his answer raises more questions than were answered.
Mr Holloway’s lengthy reply is included in the minutes of Council’s October 15 planning meeting, which are available online.
As recently reported, Cr Basil Cameron told The Echo that an application to Infrastructure Australia (IA) was made by executive staff without the knowledge of Council’s Transport and Infrastructure Advisory Committee. The implications – and its cost to taxpayers – are enormous, as it seeks to lock funding into a traffic solution without seeking all transport outcomes.
Cr Cameron says it comes at a cost that is similar to Council’s annual budget.
‘$78 million is a lot to spend on a proposal so poorly supported by data… We need to transition to sustainable transport systems that meet the needs of our community’.
Transport Strategy yet to be adopted
Mr Holloway’s reply admits, ‘There is no single specific resolution’ relating to staff secretly pursuing the road upgrade funding; however, he justifies not informing the public of the application owing to ‘multiple reports, resolutions, strategic planning workshops, and email responses to questions from Councillors that address this issue’.
There also appears to be a planning inconsistency surrounding the decision, with it being made without adopted polices in place.
For example, the Draft Byron Shire Transport Strategy is currently with Transport for NSW, and is ‘not inconsistent with the expression of interest to Infrastructure Australia’.
Yet Mr Holloway also admits in the same sentence: ‘there is no presently adopted Transport Strategy’.
According to Mr Holloway’s reply, general manager Mark Arnold met with Ben Franklin MLC (Nationals) in August with to discuss traffic congestion at the M1 and MR545 interchange.
Mr Franklin, who is not the elected local MP, confirmed with The Echo, ‘Council raised the traffic congestion issue with me and advised that they were making the submission’.
It is still unclear why Council staff did not invite the elected local member, Greens MP Tamara Smith, to the meeting. Ms Smith is on the Transport and Infrastructure Advisory Committee.
Subsequently, Mr Franklin told The Echo he, ‘offered to write a letter of support, which I am always happy to do for any Council in the region to support projects that they believe are important for the local community’.
Mr Franklin did not answer the questions: ‘Are you concerned that Council staff are ignoring elected community representatives, have engaged in background political lobbying, and ignored transparent processes with regards to major infrastructure funding?’
And, ‘Were you aware this meeting was to the exclusion of elected community representatives?’
Meanwhile, Cr Cameron asked, in one of his questions to Mr Holloway, ‘Why has Byron Shire Council endorsed a proposal largely driven by a TfNSW study, with a limited study area and no analysis of what this will mean for Byron Bay and the Ewingsdale corridor beyond the study area? Why was no independent assessment undertaken?’
Mr Holloway replied, ‘As part of the stage one submission to Infrastructure Australia, Council was required to quantify the problem to demonstrate that it is nationally significant (the current definition of a problem of national significance is a threshold value of $30 million per annum). The study provided by TfNSW contained the latest data available to Council, and as a result, its data was used for the Business Cost Analysis’.
Asked by Cr Cameron what resolution of Council authorises the preparation and submission of the application to IA, Mr Holloway replied, ‘The General Manager of Byron Shire Council possesses the delegation to authorise a stage one submission’.
Echo question of apology rejected
The Echo put it to the general manager that the reply from Director Infrastructure Services, Phil Holloway, ‘indicates that the general manager has a free rein, through delegation, to engage in secret political lobbying and ignore transparent processes, the community that employs him and the elected body that is tasked with making decisions regarding the future direction of the community’.
The Echo asked, ‘Given the general manager Mark Arnold and Mr Holloway have clearly breached the trust of the community that employs them, what will the GM do to ensure that this doesn’t happen again?’
‘Will the GM apologise to the community for this? This follows on from other bungling of major infrastructure projects, including the Byron Bay Bypass’.
A reply from Council’s media spokesperson reads, ‘All staff, including the General Manager, are required to adhere to the Code of Conduct. Your assertions concerning the conduct of the General Manager and the Director Infrastructure Services are rejected in their entirety’.
According to the Code of Conduct Staff Policy 2019 (General Conduct Obligations), ‘You must not conduct yourself in a manner that: a) is likely to bring the council or other council officials into disrepute, b) is contrary to statutory requirements or the council’s administrative requirements or policies, c) is improper or unethical.
Staff are also required to ‘act lawfully and honestly, and exercise a reasonable degree of care and diligence in carrying out your functions under the LGA or any other Act. (section 439)’.
Cr Cameron: staff reply lacks clarity
Independent councillor Basil Cameron told The Echo of Mr Holloway’s reply, ‘Lengthy answers were provided on discussions within Council about Ewingsdale Road, going back to 2012; however, answers regarding the recent application focussed on the Pacific Highway interchange lacked clarity.’
‘It is a concern that Mr Franklin’s letter was addressed to the Deputy Prime Minister for an application to Infrastructure Australia, a body that is supposed to be independent.
‘Given the price tag on the application, one thing is clear: park and ride and multi-use of the rail corridor must be part of a financially and environmentally sustainable solution. It is time for all local and state representatives to acknowledge community aspirations, and get involved in making this vision a reality’.