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Mayor storms out of Public Forum over Coopers Island Road

With fifteen speakers this morning presenting to Council's Public Forum session time it was already anticipated that there would be passionate deliveries by the fourteen speakers who wanted to retain community ownership of the Public road and an equally passionate and articulate presentation by the owners offering their perspective as to why it should be sold.

What wasn't anticipated though was the attendance of the Mayor as the chair to today's Public Forum as she has been more recently delegating the role of chair to these public sessions to her past and present deputy. The gallery was full, as was the adjacent committee room that provided seating for the overflow of community who turned up at 8:30am to show their support of speakers. In addition to the gallery the media were present including the Bay Post, Braidwood Bugle, Moruya Mail, ABC South East and The Beagle so hopefully each will offer a solid overview of the speakers, the councillor questions and the eventual motion and vote. The first speaker of the day was Max Castle. Only a minute into his presentation he was called to a halt when he alleged from his presentation "I have received many complaints from the community about being confronted, told to leave, forced off with a tractor, threatened with a firearm, advised it was the owners land with people being bullied and continuously harassed, police have had to attend." Councillors had been told in briefings before the meeting that some of presentations that they would hear would allege actions by the owners that could be deemed defamatory. It is understood that these presentations will be redacted by Council before being posted to the Council website. Mr Castle, however, did not know he would not be able to suggest bullying, harassments and threats. It may have been the clumsy and abrasive manner that the Chair, Liz Innes used to demand a retraction and apology that caused the outburst that was to follow, or the realisation by those speakers wishing to address such allegations conveying their own accounts, that led to one speaker standing defiantly and declaring he was at the receiving end of such actions and that he had come forward to convey his account to councillors, only to discover he would be gagged. The speaker was asked by the Mayor to remove himself from the chamber after his outbursts but he initially refused to do so saying he wanted to be allowed to tell councillors what had occurred. His voice was loud, as was the Mayors, and the incident became inflamed with the Mayor saying that if he didn't leave she would and she indicated that the councillors would accompany her from the chamber. Within the next twenty seconds the Mayor stood up and made her way to the door but, instead of following her the six other councillors present (Brown and Nathan absent) remained and Deputy Mayor Pollock rose from his chair and moved around to the vacant Mayors chair where he very ably took control of the session, restored calm as the speaker left the chamber under his own will, and then for the next hour and a half chaired the session with a calm control that gave all the speakers respect and a degree of freedom to present. While this was happening each of the speakers who may have presented allegations that they now knew would be considered untoward scratched out lines in readiness to present. Without argument each adjusted their presentations and the next fourteen speakers presented clearly, passionately and respectfully in the absence of the Mayor. The determination. Rather than putting forward the two options of either selling or not selling Councillor Pollock and his fellow councillors instead offered One Option; NOT to sell, having clearly read the room and heard the voice of the community. They also now had a 290 signature petition presented to them to add weight. In the end the they voted that Council does not close or sell Coopers Island Road and that they allocate up to $40,000 from the 2020-21 budget to realign the road back onto the road reserve and other associated works to improve safety and the operational management of the property to ensure minimising conflict between livestock and road users. They also moved to write to the owners requesting that the fencing near the causeway across the road reserve be removed within 28 days from the date of the letter or after such time has elapsed, Council remove such and Council relocate the fence and structure to the correct alignment. The next element of their motion however, remains controversial. "Note that the electric fence on the boundary of Coopers Island Road has been removed and a public gate can now be reconsidered" Just minutes before the Public Forum session this morning Council staff advised the councillors that an electric fence running along Coopers Island Road was no longer in place. With this electric fence now removed, and with the owners deciding not to renew the old fencing of the road reserve (see image below) the Council staff offered Councillors that the owners could now apply for a Gate Permit allowing cattle free roaming from one side of the road to the other that would then allow a gate to be installed.

It was clear that the Council staff already had knowledge of the electric fence removal and were swift to suggest that it now offered a loophole. That loophole was today voted on by councillors. The end result of that is that the owners can now apply for a Gate Permit that would allow the Gate to legally remain. The requirement would be that the owner places a Public Road sign in text 75mm high on both sides of the gate. It is argued that if this was the outcome then the public would retain access to Coopers Island Road, and that they would have to open and close the gate each time ensuring cows don't escape. During debate none of the councillors, possibly having only just heard of removal of the electric fence, raised the question of why the landowner simply didn't restore the fencing on the road reserve boundaries. It is more than apparent that the eleventh hour loophole suggested to the councillors by the staff would allow a Gate Permit to progress without public consultation, under delegation. Under second thoughts the councillors might like to consider looking at how this might work. The Public arrive at Coopers Island Road, they stop, open the gate, get back in their car, drive through, stop, close the gate and drive on. What if there are cattle standing around the gate? What is the risk they escape while the gate is open running straight onto the Princes Highway? What if it isn't a car but a B-Double as advised would be arriving to the gate? With the cattle, under the Gate Permit, free to walk all over the Public Road what of the relationship between cars, bicycles and pedestrians and the cows? A fence on a roadway is designed to act as an interface between stock and road users. Councillor Constable reminded the staff that Councillors have the final say in the chamber and asked if it was possible to get a report to the Councilors so they can vote on the outcome. He was advised that the staff would be taking their time to carefully consider the Gate Permit application. While community members like Max Castle believe it is a win others are a little more cautionary that by allowing the gate there would still be conflicts between recreation users and farm activities. Councilor Pollock covered this in his closing of the debate recognising that parties should come together to establish a good outcome for all. Of interest the entire fiasco regarding the gate and its erection came from verbal advice from a Council staff member in 2018. That advice was legally incorrect yet Council, knowing this information had been given and knowing it was legally incorrect, failed to do anything to address the incorrect advice. The owners, in good faith took this advice as fact.