The most contentious items on Lismore Council’s agenda for the November meeting were a development application (DA) for the change of use of a former car park at 117 Magellan Street opposite the library and the item listed for discussion in the Committee of the Whole on Council’s Waste Management.
Deeply divided council
As usual with this Council, there were examples that raised questions about Council’s governance, and in particular the behaviour of one councillor who, besides being an expert on operational and legal issues, clearly sees himself as fully qualified in land use planning and determining how other councillors should behave.
This Council is deeply divided, with particular hostility shown towards Cr Guise who, unfortunately, at times can appear to be lecturing those with whom he disagrees. As the Krieg bloc – with the exception of Cr Gordon and sometimes Cr Colby – rarely explain their decisions it can be frustrating and lead to passionate discussions.
Apart from the two most contentious issues, the usual minutes of both the Council and other committees, financial reports, the proposed rezoning of land at 1055 and 1055A Bruxner Highway, transfer to Council of Trevan Road at East Lismore, acquittal of Nimbin’s special business rate variation and formation of an Australia Day Awards Committee and its terms of reference were all approved, but not without some disagreement.
Whilst the mayor was pleasant to those members of the public who spoke in public access, unfortunately the two applicants with excellent credentials who purchased the land at 117 Magellan Street and spoke to their DA were not treated with the same courtesy by Cr Rob who was allowed to question them aggressively.
Whilst there were 25 submissions supporting the development, some from existing CBD businesses, and no submissions against it, Cr Rob asked if they were aware that ‘there had been many submissions to councillors against it, and why should we allow you to go ahead?’ Formal submissions only go to the Council itself, not to individual councillors, so how many there were, what their concerns were, and whether the planners addressed those concerns are known only to the councillors they emailed.
The planners recommended approval of this development on what was previously a concrete car park. Initially it was to go to the former Independent Planning Panel before it was disbanded, and it had taken 13 months to get to this stage.
As pointed out by Cr Ekins, this would be an incubator for people who want to start their own business in the CBD, would attract many people who might otherwise not come into the CBD, and give people a chance to try out their wares before renting in the CBD as other businesses have done. Crs Bird, Cook, Ekins and Guise and the mayor supported the proposal, but, with Cr Jensen absent, the vote was five all.
Is Lismore City Council in breach of the Local Government Act?
In the past the mayor has used his casting vote, almost without exception, according to his own vote, but he said he had ‘learnt from Cr Cook’ who had complained that he used his casting vote to approve a change in policy in her absence. He had talked to Cr Jensen about this, and she was against it because of the competition to existing businesses.
Making a decision on a DA isn’t the same as making a change to Council policy, and I’m not sure how this is in line with Section 5.2 A of the NSW Local Government Act which says that a councillor cannot participate in a meeting of the Council or of a committee of the Council, unless personally present at the meeting. On this issue the mayor could effectively be seen as personally supporting the development whilst ensuring it was rejected. However, residents should listen to the whole debate on this, as some of the comments in refusing the DA by Crs Rob, Colby and Hall are worth hearing!
As pointed out by Crs Bird, Cook, Ekins and Guise, this decision was not in line with Lismore Council’s ‘Back the CBD’ campaign. Neither is it in line with the recent decision on the Monaltrie rezoning, when the Krieg bloc and Cr Rob argued that ‘people should be able to do what they want with their land’. Apparently, this is only for people that the Krieg bloc and Cr Rob approve of.
In proposing to reject the development Cr Rob claimed that ‘it was not in the public interest,’ and criticised the planners’ report, demonstrating yet again his belief that he knows more about planning legislation than the planners. I have heard the majority of senior staff, who were at the Council when this Council was elected, have left. If that’s so it’s not surprising when their expertise and qualifications are questioned or ignored.
Another controversial issue was that of Council’s waste management, which Cr Guise moved should be brought forward and debated in open Council. Section 10 of the Local Government Act states meetings should only be closed to the public for a few specific reasons. One is section 10.2 (a), which says ‘personnel matters concerning particular individuals.’
It is clearly a matter of judgement as to whether it applies to unnamed staff, with the general manager pointing out that Council’s senior staff would always interpret that cautiously, but it was up to the Council to make that decision. Crs Bird, Cook, Ekins and Guise all argued that it should be in open Council, but the Krieg bloc and Cr Rob voted against it.
Cr Rob said he didn’t want to have his comments on the union, which he clearly dislikes, being aired in public. That doesn’t appear to be in line with the Act, which says at 10.4 that it is irrelevant if the matter being discussed might ‘cause embarrassment to the council or committee concerned, or to councillors or to employees of the council, or cause a loss of confidence in the council.’
The public is now in a position where we have no idea what the Council approved apart from allusions to contracting out. Again, this seems to be in contravention of the Act, which says ‘the general manager… is responsible for reporting to the council the proceedings of the committee of the whole. It is not necessary to report the proceedings in full, but any recommendations of the committee must be reported.’ So far, this hasn’t occurred.
Given Council’s current comprehensive Waste Management Strategy based on achieving a circular economy was developed with the community and approved by Council in late 2022, this seems to demonstrate a worrying lack of transparency by the current Council. There was a rescission motion on this issue but that changed nothing.
Rezoning for development
The discussion on rezoning land at 1055 and 1055A Bruxner Highway to enable combined residential, commercial, industrial and recreational development was moved by Cr Ekins and was approved by all except Cr Guise. Cr Guise asked Council’s chief planner a number of questions, and Cr Rob tried to close him down asking points of order as to whether the planners should have to answer his questions at this stage, and whether Cr Guise should waste time.
Cr Rob takes the cake in terms of calling points of order, demonstrating sensitivity to virtually any negative general comments made by the non-bloc councillors. Whilst the mayor doesn’t always support his points of order, unfortunately he ignored his comment on ‘the communism in the room by the Greens’ while warning Cr Guise about his use of personal comments and Cr Ekins about her using the word ‘nitpicking’. It seems that for some reason Cr Rob can get away with making disparaging or offensive questioning of members of the public and derogatory remarks about his fellow councillors.
Cr Rob bias against Nimbin
The last item apart from questions and notices of motion that I will comment on is the acquittal of the expenditure of the Nimbin special business rate variation amounting to $17,100. This amount is raised from Nimbin businesses as identified by the special rate, which Council made to IPART on behalf of the Nimbin Chamber of Commerce. This is allocated to the Nimbin Chamber of Commerce for projects around Nimbin that support the business community.
Anyone who has observed Council over the past two years would be well aware that Cr Rob has a negative disposition to firstly the idea that anyone except Lismore Councillors should be able to allocate funding to anything, and in particular to Nimbin’s Chamber of Commerce. His comments were not only negative but intended to portray the Chamber of Commerce as looking after itself, spending large sums of money on the Chamber’s website, which was established to provide a much-used and popular venue for both Nimbin businesses and residents after Council closed the Visitor Information Centre.
Council staff responsible for assessing the acquittal said that ‘the financial report represents a fair and accurate assessment of the expenditure for the period 1 October 2022 to 30 September 2023 including outcomes achieved for the Nimbin community and is supported by staff.’ The only other councillor who supported Cr Rob’s motion was Cr Bing.
Cr Rob’s motion to seek a referendum on reverting Lismore Council to election of the mayor by councillors rather than by direct election was not supported either. The community was consulted on this issue by a referendum at the 1995 election and the first directly-elected mayor was Bob Gates in 1999. Whilst Cr Rob said there was nothing personal about this, he also questioned the right of the mayor to have his monthly report of his activities included as a mayoral minute in the business paper. He seemed to be relying on Cl. 9.9 of the Code of Meeting Practice which says ‘a mayoral minute must not be used to put without notice matters that are routine and not urgent, or matters for which proper notice should be given because of their complexity’, but of course the mayor’s reports are in the business paper therefore not ‘without notice.’
♦ Ros Irwin is a former mayor of LCC.