THE first virtual meeting of the Upper Hunter Shire Council meeting was held last night, with Councillors, staff and the public logging on with Zoom.
Unusually, the Merriwa Service Station proposal which was refused by Council in February, was back on the table due to Council not properly adhering to meeting process during the meeting. The recommendation from the last meeting was again put to this meeting and was deferred until the next meeting, with several Councillors indicating they have changed their position on the development application, which may now be approved.
Councillor Abbott challenged the Council’s move into closed Council this month, stating she did not believe the items for discussion were of a confidential nature and believed they were in the public interest, including discussions on Gumman Place and cricket nets at the Bill Rose Sporting Complex. Nevertheless the matters were moved into closed Council.
Councillor Abbott also asked why her questions relating to the airport development had been omitted from the business papers. See below for more details.
Cr James Burns has taken a leave of absence.
Present at the meeting were Councillors Sue Abbott, Wayne Bedggood, Joshua Brown, Ron Campbell, Maurice Collison, Lorna Driscoll, Kiwa Fisher and Lee Watts.
There was public participation regarding the Merriwa Service Station, however the letters were not read out in the Council meeting for the public.
Matters discussed at the meeting included:
Homelessness During Covid-19
Councillor Abbott said national best practice during the pandemic was to ensure people who were homeless were accommodated. Cr Abbott asked what the Council was doing for people in the local area. The general manager, Steve McDonald, said he had raised the matter with Inspector Guy Guiana from Hunter Valley Local Area Command who was liaising between state and local government. No recommendations or strategies were proposed.
Bill Rose Sports Complex
Cr Abbott questioned if the Bill Rose Sports Complex was still open. The general manager confirmed it was open for exercise for people who were socially distancing. It was further confirmed Wilson Memorial Oval, Merriwa Number One Oval Complex and Aberdeen Oval was open to the public.
Cr Abbott asked if local libraries could follow the lead of other Shire libraries, which have complied with closures but have implemented a click and return for books. She explained the books were quarantined for 72 hours, before being disinfected and placed back onto the shelves, which meets with infection control best practice. The general manager said Guy Guiana from Hunter Valley Local Area Command had considered it to be “too high risk”. Cr Abbott asked if there were more creative things the library could do online with the community during the pandemic.
Cr Abbott expressed interest in attending a local government roads conference in June. Cr Campbell had also expressed interest and Cr Abbott said if only one councillor were to attend she would be pleased for Cr Campbell to be the representative, but since the conference may be done online questioned if there would be any extra charge for a second Councillor attending. The general manager said he would seek clarification.
Aberdeen Rock Plume
Cr Ron Campbell asked about progress with a private landholder in the construction of a rock plume, which Cr Campbell described as a “long and drawn out process with that particular land owner…” A $250,000 rock plume is to be built on private property to mitigate erosion of the riverbank adjacent to St Andrew’s Reserve in Aberdeen. Council staff advised a memorandum of understanding was being finalised.
Recording of Development and Environment Meeting
Cr Abbott asked why the audio recording for the last D&E committee had not been made available. Cr Abbott was advised that the matter would be followed up.
Cr Kiwa Fisher sought further clarification to Cr Abbott’s previous question to Council in relation to the local strategic statement and consistency with the land use strategy. The map put on public display was not up to date, including two areas not depicted on the map and the bypass was omitted. Cr Abbott said it was not reasonable for the map to be used for community feedback if it did not depict everything, pointing out a resident had expressed their concerns before Council put the map on display and was assured it would be accurate, but it was not.
Cr Abbott said the proper map should be issued and put on public display again. Matthew Pringle, Council’s director of environmental and community services said he thought the map was fine as it was only a draft and said the map referenced other documents which identified omissions on the map, but was unclear why the bypass was not on the map. Cr Abbott said the correct document should be put on public display. Mr Pringle said he was concerned if they did so they may not meet the deadline for Council to adopt the plan of the end of the financial year. The Mayor questioned if the deadline was still applicable after changes to the local government deadlines due to the coronavirus. The general manager said he would investigate.
Merriwa Service Station
At the February Council meeting Council voted to refuse the development of a service station in Merriwa, however the Council did not properly follow meeting process of proposing a new recommendation and vote for it.
The development application was discussed again in Council, with some Councillors changing their position on the development application. Councillor Brown said he was concerned that by rejecting the development application it could leave the Council exposed to being sued in the land and environment court. Cr Driscoll said of another services station in Merriwa that “the other person isn’t keeping up with petrol and diesel for them (the Merriwa community).”
Mayor Bedggood said he didn’t believe the decision would stand up in a court of law, but reiterated his disappointment with the instrument for approval which did not support refusal. Mayor Bedggood also said the proposal had overwhelming community support which he said had prompted him to change his vote on the matter.
The matter was deferred to the next Council meeting.
Junction Bridge, Upper Rouchel Road
Council proposed Junction Bridge on Upper Rouchel Road, be transferred to Transport NSW for ongoing maintenance. Cr Fisher asked if the money earmarked to Council for the bridge could be recommended for another bridge. Council staff explained grant funding must be used on what it was awarded to, however said they would recommend another bridge.
Airport Questions Not Included
Cr Abbott submitted three questions to Council for last nights meeting relating to the Scone Airport development, which were not included in the business papers. Cr Abbott asked for an explanation on why the questions were not included. Steve McDonald, general manager of Council said he had tried to contact Cr Abbott prior to issuing the business papers to discuss her questions being included, but since he was unable to reach her had not included them.
Costs of Warbirds Being Cancelled
Cr Abbott asked what the costs were to Council for cancelling this year’s airshow and was advised the cost to date was $12,000 with no further costs to be incurred.
Is the Airport Project Still Fiscally Responsible?
Citing the significant economic ramifications of the current pandemic Cr Abbott questioned if it was fiscally responsible to do the airport project and the Warbird museum. It was advised a report would be submitted to the next Council meeting on April 27.
Cost of Hasty Tear Down
Cr Abbott said the Scone Airport Terminal had been torn down in haste at the end of last year, leaving the airport with no terminal and incurring costs of renting space at the Scone Aero Club. Cr Abbott questioned how much it was now costing the Council to rent the space and was advised it is $1,000 per week. Cr Abbott further asked why it was torn down so quickly pointing out it was now resulting in an unnecessary spend. Council staff advised in hindsight it may have been “premature”, but at the time they expected the project would have started some months ago.
Closed Council Questioned
Cr Abbott cited the items to be discussed in closed Council, including advice on Gumman Place and the tender for cricket nets stating she had read the detail and did not find anything which would necessitate the items being discussed confidentially and further said the matters were in the public interest.
In response to Cr Abbott questioning why the matter relating to Gumman Place was to be in closed Council the general manager advised there was legal advice to Council. Cr Abbott said she recognised there was a legal recommendation, but argued she saw no reason the public should not see the legal advice. Cr Brown said while Council staff could recommend a matter be heard in closed Council, the Councillors could elect to have the matter heard in open Council. Cr Brown proposed the matter could be initially raised in closed Council and if the Councillors saw fit then discuss the matter in open Council. After closed Council the Council made public that they had noted the legal advice on Gumman Place.
Tenders – Cricket Nets
A matter decided in closed Council involved the tenders for cricket nets at the Bill Rose Sports Complex for more than $250,000. While debating if the matter should be heard in open Council, Cr Campbell said he believed with tenders “their names should not be in the public arena at all” and prices should not be discussed in public. The Council later announced Gaba Sporting Products were awarded the tender for $251,531.