Minister and Mayor yet to meet after shock radio interview
UPDATE: As fallout from the Local Government Minister's appearance on radio threatening legislative change to halt the Cultural and Civic Space continues, she claims there's been no formal request from the Mayor for a meeting.
On Tuesday Coffs Harbour City Council Mayor Denise Knight said she was attempting to meet with Minister Shelley Hancock after she appeared on shock jock Ray Hadley's show on Monday morning.
The Advocate requested an interview with Minister Shelley Hancock but was told she was too busy. Instead her office asked for questions to be emailed.
The following response was received on Thursday afternoon:
At this stage, I am yet to receive a formal meeting request from Mayor Knight.
It is the job of local councils to work with their communities to determine where they spend their money. But councils must also ensure value for money when spending their residents' hard-earned rate dollars.
Coffs Harbour City Council's Cultural and Civic Space project has clearly created division not only among councillors but also in the local community.
I urge councillors to not just listen to the local community but act on their concerns.
Given we're in such uncertain times, I have simply asked Council to put a pause to this project and redirect rate payer dollars into responding to the COVID-19 crisis.
She chose not to answer questions in relation to the legislative changes she foreshadowed in the interview with Ray Hadley and the perception by some Councillors and members of the community that her involvement sets a dangerous precedent of political interference akin to the recent 'sports rorts' fiasco.
The Minister's appearance on radio came just days after Coffs Harbour Nationals MP Gurmesh Singh sent an urgent letter to Councillors urging them to support a motion to suspend the $76.5m project in light of Covid-19.
TUESDAY: Mayor Denise Knight is seeking a meeting with Minister for Local Government Shelley Hancock after she appeared on commercial radio saying she would pursue legislative change to bring a halt to the Cultural and Civic Space.
"It was all a bit of a shock to hear it on Ray Hadley," Cr Knight said.
"We've not had any formal letter from the Minister, and I welcome her to meet with me again, because I met with her last year, and we talked about the whole project and I talked to her about the casting vote."
Also present at the meeting were general manager Steve McGrath, director business services Andrew Beswick and Member for Coffs Harbour Gurmesh Singh.
"When we left her office we were all feeling very positive about it all so I'm not quite sure why she would go on radio; however, she has every right to do so."
The Minister's appearance on radio on Monday morning comes just days after Mr Singh sent an urgent letter to Councillors urging them to support a motion to suspend the $76.5m project in light of Covid-19.
Mayor Knight reacted angrily to the letter which she said came two hours prior to the meeting without warning.
"I blew a gasket and there's no excuse for that. I always pride myself on my integrity and being respectful and I did apologise afterwards but it doesn't seem to mean anything because it just keeps getting rehashed."
She says she was surprised and disappointed by Mr Singh's letter.
"I was also a little but hurt, as were some of the other councillors, as it came without a phone call, conversation or meeting.
"That letter arrived two hours before the meeting."
Mayor Knight has emphasised there will be no special rate variation to pay for the project which she says will provide a valuable stimulus during the Covid recovery stage.
"Council's peer review and long term financial plan show it is affordable. TCorp has reviewed our debt capacity and found council's current and forecast debt can be serviced on an ongoing basis without the need for a special rate variation.
"So other than normal CPI rate rises there will be no special rate variation on this and I've said it a million times."
With no clear directive from the Minister following yesterday's radio interview Mayor Knight says she is getting on with business but others have warned the Minister's actions have set a dangerous precedent.
When speaking to Mr Hadley Minister Hancock warned Council would not be able to borrow from Tcorp to help fund the project, and without the support of Mr Singh, they would struggle to fund it.
Shadow Minister for Local Government, Greg Warren says Ms Hancock has overstepped the line.
"The Minister has essentially said Council will not be able to borrow funds from Tcorp without her Coalition member's blessing.
"This is not about the project itself, this is about the intervention of a Minister on a local democratic and lawful resolution of that community's Council."
He says the Minister admitted the process has all been above board so she should butt out.
"The Minister's job cannot be to veto projects simply because she doesn't agree with it," Mr Warren said.
"If the community is so outraged by this decision, then it will be reflected in the polls at the next election - that is a matter between those local representatives and their community, not the Minister."
He believes the Minister's actions show she has no respect for councils, no respect for their communities and most concerning, no respect for the democratic process.
"If the Minister succeeds with this fiasco then it will open up a can of worms for every council throughout our state."