Rubber stamping no longer par for course

Geoff Appleby

A SMALL minority of readers has complained about negativity in this column so I am happy to report that last month’s Toodyay Shire Council meeting – for the most part – showed promising signs of improvement. 
Three ratepayers made public submissions opposing council plans to approve a new 60-metre Telstra mobile phone tower in Marri Road, Julimar.

The planned tower is part of the Federal Government’s mobile black spot program to improve communications in country areas.

The ratepayers’ arguments were rational, well-informed with scientific research and included concern that the new tower could have a detrimental effect on a nearby restaurant, winery and mead producer.

Bees bumbled:

The restaurant owner claimed radiation from the mobile phone tower could disrupt the flight paths of his honey bees, causing them to become lost and unable to return to their hives.

North Ward Cr Eric Twine declared a financial interest and left the chamber for the ensuing debate after saying that Telstra planned to build the tower on his land.

Shire Deputy President Therese Chitty moved that the tower be built.

Cr Brian Rayner seconded it before saying that councillors had not been given information about the effect on bees.

Cr Craddock opposed the tower’s location and suggested other sites could be used.

Cr Welburn also opposed the tower because of detrimental visual impact on a local business, while Cr Judy Dow hedged her bets and sat on the fence, saying she had yet to decide which way to vote.

Cr Chitty spoke in favour, citing poor mobile coverage in the area and suggested there was nowhere else for the tower to go.

However, she conceded that “in 20 years’ time, we could look back and think again”.

Shire President David Dow closed the debate by speaking strongly in favour of allowing the tower to be built.

He warned other councillors that if they voted it down, their decision would most likely be appealed and overturned by the State Administrative Tribunal – costing the shire more money to defend its decision.

However, he lost the vote 4-2 with only Cr Chitty supporting him, Cr Paula Greenway absent and Cr Twine out of the chamber.

President Dow then told councillors they had to publicly record a good reason to overturn shire planner Graeme Bissett’s recommendation to approve the tower.

CEO Stan Scott said he could draft a suitable statement from his notes of the debate.

How much more constructive – and potentially cheaper – it would have been for the shire to ask Telstra if the tower could be placed on one of the other six sites in its planning application to the council.

RSL bins:

The next item was an application from the Toodyay RSL to move into the shire’s former Parks and Gardens Depot in Clinton Street opposite Anzac Memorial Park.

The RSL had liaised with Arts Toodyay about sharing the premises.

Mr Bisset recommended approval and that the RSL pays $1000 a year in operating costs.

The item was debated at length with all councillors contributing mainly positive comments.

However, Cr Judy Dow said the RSL should be made to pay an additional $250 a year for rubbish collection.

Cr Chitty opposed this and said even $1000 a year was too much.

Cr Welburn agreed with Cr Chitty and said other community groups at The Junction shire facility in West Toodyay didn’t have to pay for rubbish collection.

The $250 increase was viewed by some councillors as too much but Cr Judy Dow got her way and – with husband David’s supporting vote – the extra annual cost was carried 4-3, with Crs Chitty, Welburn and Craddock voting against her amendment.

The amended motion was carried 6-1 with Cr Rayner opposed, though he did not speak against the motion after being ruled him out of order for questioning ‘peppercorn’ rents.

He then declared a proximity interest in the next item and left the chamber.

It was about a West Toodyay neighbour’s plan to build a house in Harders Chitty Road and retain a converted shed for guest accommodation, which was passed 6-0.

Wake-up call:

The highlight of last month’s meeting was when several councillors showed promising signs they are at last starting to play closer attention to the shire’s monthly list of payments.

Instead of the usual rubber stamp which is over in a flash, several councillors actually held up proceedings to ask pertinent questions about particular payments.

This is not to say they have not been questioned before but it’s mostly a rare event, with some councillors seeming to flick through the list as if for the first time just moments before they vote to approve.

Your humble Bat would like to think the change may be a result of his occasional call for greater financial scrutiny but it could also be councillors were emboldened by a question from Cr Welburn, who knows his way around a balance sheet and has previously questioned shire accounts.

CEO stumped:

He queried a June 15 ‘final’ payment of $16,225 to an earthmoving company, followed by another payment of $15,768.50 to the same contractor on June 29 for what looked like the same job.

Mr Scott was stumped for an answer and agreed to ‘take the question on notice’ and report back to Cr Welburn, hopefully at the next council meeting so visitors in the public gallery can also hear the response.

Cr Rayner questioned $16,830 paid to an architect for drawings to support a funding application for Toodyay’s planned new Recreational Precinct, while Crs Twine and Welburn sought clarification on several other payments – well done councillors.

However, there was no June monthly state of accounts in the published agenda, and councillors – but not visitors in the public gallery – got them only just before the meeting started.

Councillors wisely agreed to postpone a vote until the next council meeting so that everyone can see what they are voting on.

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