The debate over the tender for the building of the rail trail between Murwillumbh and Crabbes Creek was ultimately held behind closed doors, Mayor Chris Cherry (Independent) and Councillor Katie Milne (Greens) voted against a confidential debate, following the information that there could be a legal challenge against the decision to go ahead with the rail trail.
James Owen removed himself from the debate and voting due to a conflict of interest and all other councillors voted for a confidential discussion based on legal advice.
However, before entering the confidential session councillors were given an opportunity to say a few words on the issue of the rail trail.
With more than 2,000 signatures against the rail trail being built on formation (on formation means getting rid of the existing tracks rather than building next to the tracks) Mayor Cherry challenged the notion that the council had actively sought the communities views on the creation of the rail trail as required.
‘I, as a councillor, feel my part very strongly in that. We didn’t spend the money on community consultation,’ she told the meeting.
Mayor Cherry pointed to Byron Shire Council’s study for an off formation rail trail that would leave the rails intact for potential future use as a preferred way forward.
‘I don’t understand why people say that it [the train] can’t be brought back. When you look at Byron Shire who have seen that it can be done,’ she said.
‘I do see a way forward. I believe there is a way forward to do that. I hope we can get that outcome tonight.’
Conservative Councillor Pryce Allsop remembered back to when the line was first closed and how he had ‘put on the TOOT t-shirt’ and must have attended his first protest. However, he said that the line was closed and ‘we didn’t get any consolation [on that] but here we are with an opportunity’.
‘When I ran for council I said I actively supported the rail trail. I’m right there thinking this is a great initiative,’ he said.
Councillor Katie Milne told the meeting passionately that ‘to me this is actually a really sad day. Councillors are sitting here about to support [removing] a piece of infrastructure and there has been such an appalling job on consultation. You are doing this without consultation.’
‘I know we will have betrayed the trust of our community in doing this. What is wrong with you? Why do you just accept these rhetorical statements [about not being able to do both rail trail and light rail]. We are willing to upset huge, significant portions of our community who have begged us to be flexible, to have a compromise situation. I don’t get any councillor here who says that is not possible. We’ve all seen the tenders, there is not one of us who can say it is not possible. If you did you are lying to the community.’
Disagreeing Councillor Warren Polglase said he thought the consultation had been well done.
‘You get a lot of information coming in from both sides of the debate. But on the day, we as an elected body, we have to make a determination on what will be a great determination for the community. We have Mt Warning, the Art Gallery and we are going to have a rail trail. What other community has three such icons?
‘They always say that there was lack of community consultation [when they don’t get the outcome they want]… where do you draw the line on community consultation?’ he said.
Deputy Mayor Reece Byrnes (Labor) told the meeting that the population number just didn’t stack up for light rail and he didn’t believe they would for decades.
‘That train lines was closed by the government. The reason behind that were purely economic. Not enough people were catching that train to Sydney at that time,’ he said.
‘For me the rail trail is an opportunity to something with an asset that is sitting there doing nothing.
‘No one has come forward with a light rail [proposal]. We don’t have the population to stack up. When that eventuality comes that will be decades away. After COVID this is an opportunity for our community.’
Reminiscing Councillor Ron Cooper (Independent) said ‘I am a good deal older than Byrnes and I was really nostalgic for the loss of the train. I went to school in a train that was a rattler. But what this council has taught me to do is look forward.’
Councillor Cooper talked about a vision of the rail trail with families in electric powered carts enjoying the spectacular scenery and business opportunities for farmers and land holders beside the rail trail.
‘I’d like it to be set up on formation as it gives us the best option for travel. People are more likely to get caught in an off formation trail in storm water. I think from a safety point of view, to accommodate all the people I’ve been talking about, [on formation] would be the safest situation,’ he explained.
The meeting went into a confidential session for the final discussion and vote.
‘It did get awarded to Hazel Bros (Qld) as per the [staff] recommendation, 4:2 vote, Cr Owen recused, Katie and I against,’ Mayor Chris Cherry told The Echo.