Once described by an Echo reader as the mayor elected by divine right, Ballina Shire Councillor David Wright’s absence from this year’s local government campaign has been prophetic.
After 34 years serving on the council, eleven of them as mayor, Cr Wright successfully batted off repeated questions throughout much of 2021 as to whether or not he would run again.
Back in September when elections were at one point due, Cr Wright said he wanted to wait until the official deadlines for announcing candidature.
The long-serving mayor told The Echo at the time he was focused on Ballina’s ‘movie industry’ and to be fair, he was literally on the phone from a movie set.
The Ballina Shire Council had recently approved leasing an old quarry site to Byron Studios and Cr Wright said he was busy doing all he could to fast-track the process so film production could continue.
More than a plaque: Shelly Beach shark encounter’s profound impact on outgoing Ballina mayor
The mayor’s obvious energy and enthusiasm for getting involved in significant local issues are enduring qualities that have earned him an Order of Australia Medal, not that Cr Wright cares too much for such gestures: he didn’t even bother attending the ceremony.
The flamboyant yet humble man with wild hair often constrained by an iconic wide-brimmed hat has long been known for his candid manner with media and direct rapport with constituents, even when they disagree with his views.
He’s still deeply affected by a deadly 2015 shark encounter on Ballina’s Shelly Beach.
Forty-one-year-old Japanese Australian Tadashi Nakahara died after a shark, suspected to be a great white, bit him in early February 2015.
The mayor has been in contact with the first responder, Darren Rogers, ever since and speaks of a plaque dedicated to Mr Nakahara at a lookout over Shelly Beach.
The incident triggered a flurry of headlines around the world and heated debates on the Northern Rivers about the efficacy and ethics of shark nets.
‘I did over 2,000 interviews,’ the mayor said earlier this week, before making it clear he didn’t want a fuss being made over his retirement from local government.
‘I won’t be doing any live broadcast interviews and I don’t want any new pictures taken,’ Cr Wright said, ‘you can call me again after the ballot draw, by then it’ll all be official’.
The best beach safety program in the country
Cr Wright’s frank and friendly but no-nonsense approach to his role as mayor is at best refreshing and at worst frustrating: good luck reading between his lines, as this is a man unencumbered by spin and unashamed of admitting he’s changed his mind.
He changed his mind several times on the controversial matter of shark nets and more recently at the last minute in a council meeting during debate on an affordable housing proposal.
But it could be argued the outgoing mayor has demonstrated a rare capacity to truly listen and respond accordingly to views and data presented to him in real-time.
Returning to the traumatic story of Mr Nakahara’s death, Cr Wright says the 9thof February 2015 is a date ‘indelibly locked’ in his brain but that he’s proud of a more positive legacy.
Cr Wright said Mr Nakahara’s violent death had inspired a suite of extra measures to protect swimmers and surfers from sharks.
He named drone surveillance as the gamechanger but said increased smart drums and helicopters were also a huge help.
‘Ballina Shire has the best beach safety program in the country,’ Cr Wright said, before explaining how conversations with Tasmanian Greens Senator Peter Whish-Wilson led to the introduction of counselling services for surf life-savers otherwise left vulnerable to post-traumatic stress disorder after rescue efforts.
Lockdown love testament to family-friendly shire
But the most significant change Cr Wright has witnessed in the Ballina Shire is much more recent and potentially ongoing: the community’s response to the pandemic.
‘The way the shire has come through, when you look at what happened with the Cherry Street Sports Club in lockdown, I mean 9,000 meals or so,’ Cr Wright said, referring to the extraordinary efforts put in by volunteers and paid workers to feed those struggling the most during widespread business closures owing to COVID-19 public health orders.
‘That sense of community, it just shows how strong and family-oriented Ballina is,’ Cr Wright said, ‘we’ve always tried to keep that family feel in the shire rather than focus too much on tourism, while still ensuring local businesses can thrive’.
A sense of family isn’t limited to Cr Wright’s work in local government and is, in fact, one of the reasons he cited for leaving public service.
‘I’ve a son and daughter over the border in Queensland, two grandkids and one on the way,’ Cr Wright said, ‘they’ve waited long enough for me to join them’.
Ballina council ‘much more accountable and caring now’ says outgoing mayor
After eight elections and dealing with all sides of state politics, Cr Wright said it seemed strange to be missing in action from the campaign trail but expressed no regrets.
‘It’s been an absolute privilege serving this community,’ the outgoing mayor said, listing a few other developments he’s proud to have witnessed in his time on the council.
‘It took us about twelve years but I’m really pleased we got the Alstonville Bypass happening,’ Cr Wright said, ‘we had to criss-cross it a few times ourselves and hold up the traffic to show how bad it was but finally the government listened and did something about it’.
Expansion of the Ballina Byron Gateway Airport and industrial lands in the shire were also highlighted.
But Cr Wright’s reflections on the council itself as a democratic arm were perhaps the most telling of the independent’s legacy.
‘I won’t say we were naïve,’ the mayor said of his early days working in local government, ‘but we’re much more open, accountable and caring now’.
Whether the new council to be elected next month will remain committed to Cr Wright’s family-friendly aspirations, let alone win community trust as the region welcomes an influx of visitors and people moving from locked-down cities, is a tale yet to be told in local media.
But Ballina’s leader for more than a decade and serving councillor for more than three has little patience for dwelling on the past or future.
‘I’m ready to disappear into the sunset,’ he said, just as his phone went out of range somewhere in the Northern Rivers hinterland.