No comment council -- Community leaders speak out on the record

By PETER CATON

TWEED community leaders and representatives have lashed out at the shire's "no comment" council.

Yesterday many were eager to go on the record to speak about their frustrations at getting information out of the current council. They also backed the Daily News in this newspaper's thwarted attempts to get council to explain or comment on many day-to-day issues.

Those issues range from the continuing, multi-million court battles with developer Gales Holdings and criticisms of council finances, to outrage over another steep hike in burial fees at council cemeteries as reported yesterday. For the past fortnight the council has refused to comment on issues to the Daily News after executive officer Genevieve Slattery declared she no longer intended to "help" this newspaper.

Yesterday when the Daily News repeatedly sought a statement on the "no comment" policy from Ms Slattery the council's media officer Fran Silk finally provided a lengthy response.

The response claimed the paper "consistently failed in its duty to inform its readers about council issues, presenting biased, often inaccurate and sensationalised reports" and as a result "management at council have decided to no longer provide comment to the Daily News".

Ms Slattery is officially the administrators' executive assistant, appointed when the council had three rather than the current two administrators, to communicate with the public in their absence.

She is not actually a council employee. Her $160,000 salary is paid by the NSW Department of Local Government. The council also employs Ms Silk as a media officer as well as a further part-time journalist to work on its newsletter the Tweed Link.

The council's chief administrator Garry Payne, who is also Director General of the NSW Department of Local Government and who has been willing to speak to the Daily News, was not available to comment yesterday. Fellow administrator Max Boyd, who has also been willing to talk when contactable, could not be reached.

Tweed MP Geoff Provest called on the council to "be more open and transparent" adding "an important part of that is effective levels of communication".

Mr Provest warned a "bit of a culture" of secrecy appeared to be developing in the council.

"They should be able to answer questions. If they don't it creates fear and confusion," he said.

"A classic example was their refusal to really entertain (the proposal for) lifeguards yet that was the best practice of just about every other coastal council.

"I've had a number of concerns put to me. A greater emphasis should be put on transparency and explaining their actions."

Spokesperson for the Tweed Monitor watchdog group Jerry Cornford said the current council lacked transparency and, although he had always been treated politely, some of his recent questions had been "fobbed off".

He said if council planners were making any progress on a number of important planning documents, including a review of the Local Environment Plan, they were "doing a good job of hiding it".

"The unfortunate thing is some of the culture of the majority faction of the dismissed council still exists in some of the professional staff. The Daly Inquiry made a great thing of consultation and transparency."

Murwillumbah Chamber of Commerce president Phil Youngblutt said bureaucrats were now in charge of the council and did not like being publicly accountable or engaging in consultation.

"They don't want to appear to be doing anything controversial at all, whereas they are," Mr Youngblutt said. "If the all the people knew what was going on with Gales Holdings which is going to cost ratepayers millions, they would demand they be sacked.

"But then the council turns around because they are short of money and puts massive increases on cemetery charges."

Spokesperson for the Tweed Villages Alliance Julie Boyd said the council should be accountable to the community "but that doesn't seem to be the case".

"Trying to get real comments from them rather than pre-prepared letters is a real issue," she added.

"We need real community consultation not just lip service."



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