Remembering a former Mayor with long list of achievements

Obituary - John Louis Bullot Smith: September 25, 1926- January 7, 2015,

COFFS Harbour community leader John Smith, who died on Wednesday, left an indelible stamp on the city he made his home for the latter part of his life.

A former Shire President and later Mayor, Mr Smith was also an astute businessman, a devout churchgoer with firm beliefs who was for many years a church elder and an active philanthropist.

Former Coffs Harbour City Council Mayor John Smith passed away on Wednesday.
Former Coffs Harbour City Council Mayor John Smith passed away on Wednesday.

His firm beliefs and dogged support for projects sometimes embroiled him in controversies with fellow councillors, ratepayers and residents.

Encouraged by government support for decentralisation, John Smith moved the family firm founded by his father, WE Smith Engineering from Sydney to a newly built factory at Boambee in 1968.

He later built a second factory to manufacture the New Zealand-designed Hamilton jet boats as well as being involved in other construction projects.

Today WE Smith Engineering, now a wholly-owned subsidiary of the KNM Group, still based at Boambee, is a specialised and internationally important manufacturer of process and heat exchanger equipment.

After moving his family to Coffs Harbour, he became actively involved in local business and community affairs and local government.

John Smith was Coffs Harbour Shire President for three years, from 1982 until 1984 and Mayor for two terms; from 1991 until 1999.

Former Coffs Harbour councillor Bob Burton, a close colleague of Mr Smith on the council during the second half of the 1990s, recalled this week that Mr Smith was a driving force behind a major upgrade of Coffs Harbour Airport, construction of the northern extension of Hogbin Drive (then known as the Eastern Distributor) raising the wall of Karangi Dam by 10 metres and negotiating for a regional water supply for Coffs Harbour and Grafton using the Nymboida River and building the Shannon Creek Dam.

Following the November 1996 flood which devastated the Coffs Harbour CBD, Mr Smith moved to begin investigations into flood mitigation work for the city.

Mr Burton, who was the head of the council's Finance and Administration Committee 1995-1999, said Mr Smith and his colleagues were also fiscally responsible and the city council had achieved small surpluses over each of those four years, restricting debt financing to major projects only.

Mr Smith's most controversial civic work was his involvement with the scheme to sewer the Northern Beaches in the 1990s.

The then Mayor favoured an ocean outfall at Look At Me Now Headland, a plan which was fiercely opposed by many residents and environmentalists and which led to marches, sit-ins and tempestuous scenes of civil disobedience before the then Labor state government under Bob Carr stepped in and overruled the Coffs Harbour City Council plan for the outfall.

Coffs Harbour Mayor Denise Knight yesterday extended her sympathy and condolences to Mr Smith's family.

Although she never met Mr Smith, Cr Knight said anyone whose work made Coffs Harbour a better place would be sorely missed.

The President of Local Government NSW, Cr Keith Rhoades, who was a Coffs Harbour City councillor during Mr Smith's mayoralty from 1991 to 1999, said his late colleague was very knowledgeable about local government.

Cr Rhoades said the airport, now one of the busiest and best on the east coast outside the capital cities, was a legacy of Mr Smith's drive to develop the city and encourage tourism.

He said Mr Smith had also supported his push to allocate Federal government funding to the Coffs Harbour International Stadium in 1992.

On the controversial sewerage scheme. Cr Rhoades said the council could have completed the scheme as supported by Mr Smith for $1.8 million, versus the approximately $180 million the scheme finally cost, which still included an ocean outfall, although one several kilometres off Boambee beach, as opposed to the originally proposed outfall off Look At Me Now Headland.

Environmentalists conducted marches and sit-ins and there were tempestuous scenes of civil disobedience before the then Labor state government under Bob Carr stepped in and overruled the Coffs Harbour City Council plan for the outfall.

Outside his work for local government, Mr Smith was well-known for his church work and youth work.

Jean-Pierre (J-P) Reifler, who founded the Sherwood Christian rehabilitation centres of Sherwood Cliffs and Sherwood Glen at Glenreagh with his wife Honi, said John Smith was instrumental in starting Sherwood and had been a great positive influence in his own life and a mentor for 45 years.

Mr Reifler said not only had John Smith given him work, accommodation and support when he arrived from Western Australia in 1969, he had provided trucks, cranes, tractors and other machinery to help build Sherwood; had sat on the Board for more than 20 years and had worked at the rehabilitation farm every Saturday.

"He told me: God wants my time, not my money," Mr Reifler said of his late friend.

Coffs Harbour journalist and sub editor Craig McTear, a council reporter during Mr Smith's two terms as mayor, yesterday remembered him as a powerful figure.

"John Smith was a giant of local government in Coffs Harbour," Mr McTear said.

"As the mayor, he was the dominant figure at the council.

"Everything he sought to achieve during his time in office was, in his view, for the betterment of Coffs Harbour. He certainly tried to have the city 'progress and prosper'.

"However, he did not always have things his own way at council meetings, which is probably a good and healthy thing in our democracy.

"I had a good working relationship with John and his fellow councillors while I was a council reporter with the Advocate. John was always approachable and happy to talk to the media.

"I will always remember John as having a warm, almost grandfatherly disposition towards me as a journalist, and he always gave me plenty of great copy to take back to the office.

"My thoughts are with his family and friends at this sad time."

John Smith moved to Marian Grove retirement community with his wife Faye some years ago.

His funeral will be held at 2pm on Monday at the Wesleyan Church in Bray St Coffs Harbour.