An extraordinary meeting of Ballina Shire Council was held yesterday afternoon to discuss the controversial proposal to hold the World Surf League competition at Lennox Head this Easter.
Speaking before the vote, Member for Ballina Tamara Smith said, ‘I don’t think it’s fair that the Deputy Premier is strong-arming Ballina Council to make a very quick decision about a significant event with international competitors during a pandemic.
‘The community has not had time to contribute their thoughts,’ said Ms Smith.
‘I would certainly want to see the details of a COVID-safe plan to hold that event given the highly contagious strain of COVID-19 that many international visitors are exposed to.
‘My concern will always be the pressure on our regional health system if there was an outbreak,’ she said.
With numbers of concerned residents gathering outside the Ballina Council chamber, the vote went solidly against the WSL proposal, with only Crs Steve McCarthy and Mayor David Wright in favour, and seven councillors voting against the idea. Cr Nathan Willis was an apology.
Cr Jeff Johnson proposed an alternative motion to reject the proposal. This was supported by majority, for reasons including the ‘unacceptable’ COVID risk to the community, the loss of amenity and over-crowding during an already busy holiday period, and the fact that Lennox Point has been established as ‘a surfing sanctuary and is not to be used by a private commercial operator to the exclusion of all other users.’
Cr Johnson said the proposed event lacked proper process and community consultation, and that any short term economic gain from the proposed event would not outweigh the negatives.
‘I’m not against holding surfing contests at Lennox,’ he said.
‘The Gromfest works really well and is a much loved event in Lennox. But the scale and time of the year, i.e. during the Easter School Holidays are significant.’
Discussions behind closed doors
Cr Johnson said yesterday he was concerned that private discussions had been held behind closed doors about the WSL proposal that most councillors were not privy to.
‘The fact that the Deputy Premier is booked to come up and announce the event tomorrow is very concerning. How can that be the case given council has only just been provided details now during the presentation and hasn’t debated it?’ he asked.
‘We are going to be increasingly asked to hold large events in our area and we need to be mindful of residents, our amenity and not just support events due to the proposed economic benefits,’ said Cr Johnson.
Cr Keith Williams told Echonetdaily, ‘I’m very happy to see the majority of Councillors were willing to listen to the community and reject the proposal. The impact on locals at an already very busy time would be unacceptable.
‘As far as I’m aware the state can’t overrule this,’ he said.
‘It still requires a licence from council for an event on public land. Staff will refuse the application,’ said Cr Williams.
A statement from World Surf League said they ‘would not go where they weren’t wanted.’
With the event now canned, at this stage it’s unknown if Deputy Premier John Barilaro is still planning to make an appearance on the Northern Rivers today.
If recent visits from other senior coalition figures to the area are anything to go by (Gladys Berejiklian, Scott Morrison), then the media, political opponents or members of the public who might ask awkward questions will be the last to know.
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