Full disclosure: Bundaberg’s last council meeting
THE term’s last council meeting held four days before an election was potentially going to draw out heated debate, even without the fluidity of changes brought about by coronavirus preventive measures.
It was formally titled as an ordinary council meeting, but there were many unique variables.
For one thing, the demographic of the public gallery was different on this occasion.
Council staff no longer bolstered the numbers.
Young grandchildren of the outgoing councillors sat restlessly with their parents, to await a special morning tea ceremony held after the meeting.
They sat apart and kept to the social distancing measures that were required.
There are also other reports on the Bundaberg Regional Council’s monthly meetings:
- February’s council meeting
- January council report
- December’s council meeting
- November meeting: Seven things you need to know
OUTGOING councillor Scott Rowleson needed official approval by councillors to attend the meeting by teleconference, although the reason was not explained.
He would have to give his votes verbally throughout the meeting, while others quietly put up their hand.
Division 3’s councillor Wayne Honor was late to the meeting due to “traffic issues” and attended later, and an apology was made on his behalf.
Mayor Jack Dempsey then acknowledged indigenous elders past and present, and to Australians who fought for their country.
Their contributions would soon be central to a debate in the chamber, involving the commemoration of Anzac Day.
The council’s chaplain Pastor Errol Buckle gave a speech, recognising the current fear and anxiety in the community, particularly among the elderly.
Mr Buckle challenged the phrasing of “social distancing”.
He recognised the need for people to remain physically distant for the community’s health and wellbeing, but it was important for people to remain connected for their mental health.
“From one side of the world to the other for a long time people have been communicating by different means,” he said.
“With distance doesn’t mean we have to disconnect.
“We need physical distance but we don’t want to have social separation.”
MAYOR Jack Dempsey then gave a speech, outlining the council’s plans to address coronavirus in the region.
“The new council will face the most extraordinary challenge to ever confront the Bundaberg Region in peacetime,” Cr Dempsey told the chamber.
“We need to be united and calm.
“Sections of our community are suffering distress already, especially small business operators, events and entertainment, sports, and the tourism industry.
“The challenge for council is to provide relief and support while being financially responsible to ensure that essential services continue to operate.”
Cr Dempsey said chief executive Stephen Johnston would determine the costs of measurements and report to the new council.
The council was under caretaker mode in the lead-up to the election, which did limit councillors’ decision making, but some of the measures could be approved under the CEO’s authority.
The short-term package included a moratorium on interest for outstanding rates and charges, a refund of all fees related to event permits and venue bookings, deferred fees and charges for sporting clubs and associations, and the free extension of food licences and licenced premises.
Cr Dempsey said the council would immediately establish an Economic Recovery Group which will include representatives from the local community, industry and agencies to determine how to help the local economy recover.
“These are challenging times. We’re fortunate the Bundaberg region has a diversified economy and amazing resilient people,” Cr Dempsey said.
“We proved in 2011 and 2013 that we are a strong community.”
Anzac Day fly-past
THE stimulus package and its yet unknown financial implication was on the councillors’ minds as they then determined if allocated money should continue to be used for a vintage aircraft flyover on Anzac Day.
The council decided not to fund the flyover, after a debate and a vote which was split 6-4.
Division 5 councillor Greg Barnes was unable to vote, or even to move the motion to support the flyover, after councillors voted twice.
They first voted on whether he had a perceived conflict of interest as president of Bargara Remembers Inc, which organises an Anzac Day service, during the earlier formalities.
They decided 6-4 that Cr Barnes had a perceived conflict, and furthermore, should not remain in the chamber.
After Cr Dempsey presented the stimulus package, Cr Barnes left the room.
Cr Helen Blackburn decided to move the motion to support the flyover funding. She is an army veteran and a former Bundaberg RSL president.
The specific amount of funding was not mentioned in the chamber except by Cr Blackburn who said it was under $20,000. But cheaper quotes confirmed by the council said it was under $10,000 which included additional services.
Deputy Mayor Bill Trevor spoke against it because of the cost on top of the widespread economic uncertainty placed on the community.
Cr Judy Peters defended the flyover, in what was her last council meeting after a 26-year council career.
“One of the things that we hold precious on Anzac Day is ‘lest we forget’,” she said.
“Bundaberg Regional Council does not and will not forget.”
Cr Steve Cooper presented the council’s financial summary up until March 2.
This was when Cr Blackburn asked for confirmation about the council’s surplus.
“I note that the adopted budget is $547,000 in operating surplus, and we have an unallocated surplus which has been brought forward, which has been accumulated over the past four years, and beyond, of $34,744,728,” she said.
“Can this be confirmed?”
Cr Dempsey asked the chief executive to address the question.
“Yes, that is in unallocated surplus, Mr Mayor,” Mr Johnston said.
Cr Blackburn had scored a political point for her mayoral campaign, as she had previously said the council had $34 million that it could use to freeze rates for a year.
Cr Dempsey and Cr Cooper had previously objected to the use of council funds in such a way.
After presenting the report, Cr Cooper said the council would delay the sale of land in order to recover unpaid rates that had been owed.
“Given the Covid-19 pandemic and recommendations of social distancing put in place from the Federal Government, council does not believe that it is appropriate to proceed with the auction at this time, as social distancing at an auction would be very difficult to achieve,” he said.
“Council will be able to recommend a process at any stage in the future.”
Moratorium on rates
Cr Cooper then addressed the decision to halt outstanding rates and charges, as part of the economic stimulus package.
“The council will not charge on all outstanding rates and charges levied by the rates notice from the 12th of March, 2020, to the 30th June 2020,” Cr Cooper said.
Cr Cooper said the council was able to do this in the interest of good governance and for the welfare of the community.
Over the teleconference call, Cr Rowleson sought clarification on the detail.
Mr Johnston said, “the way we split it, Cr Rowleson, will be the moratorium of interest applied to anybody that has an outstanding debt of the date through till the end of June.”
He said the moratorium was not intended to apply to future levees.
“That will be up to the new council to decide whether they want to continue it after,” he said.
THE meeting was closed to the gallery for a short period of time so that the council could privately discuss a confidential item.
Attendees such as the council reporter, and the children, gazed at the morning tea spread which would be held for outgoing councillors Judy Peters and Ross Sommerfeld.
Behind closed doors, councillors talked about the renewal of a lease to the State Government’s Public Safety Business Agency in Bartholdt South Drive, Branyan.
They voted to renew the lease for 10 years once the public gallery was allowed back into the chamber.
Cr Dempsey concluded the meeting. “The first meeting of the new council will be advertised after the conclusion of the election,” he said.
“Details will be available on the council’s website as soon as they are known.”
Councillors remained in the chamber for a few minutes to receive a confidential briefing about Covid-19, while attendees were free to start on the morning tea.
“Don’t eat all of the sausage rolls,” one of the councillors cautioned.