SHHHH! It’s a secret. Don’t tell anyone.
But we have it on good authority that all nine South Gippsland Shire Councillors turned up at a meeting in Leongatha last Wednesday morning which lasted for four minutes.
What actually transpired, between 9am and 9.04am is a secret, because discussion about the confidential matter before Council was held behind closed doors.
But the notice about the special meeting, issued by the shire on Monday, January 11, indicates that it was an aspect of the controversial sale of council-owned land that was up for discussion.
Here is what council listed as Item 1 on its agenda for the record-short meeting: “Matter that council considers would prejudice council or any persons (section 89(2)(h)) – notice of rescission number 690 – council meeting 16 December, 2015 agenda item F.1 strategic review of landholdings – appointment of councillors to special committee to consider, hear and determine submissions”.
But the item, which was to be a Notice of Motion lodged by Cr Kieran Kennedy, was withdrawn.
Cr Kennedy explains why:
“It was a Special Meeting of Council to hear a Notice of Motion about the 223 process adopted for the land sales which I subsequently withdrew.”
Cr Kennedy said it was his intention, given the public interest in the issue, to get the council to discuss the land sales in public “as it had done with the Leongatha railway land”.
Only problem is, council was looking to buy, not sell the rail land.
“People want to know what’s going on,” he said, nonetheless.
Cr Kennedy said it wasn’t just at Venus Bay, a town he represents, that there had been concern expressed about the proposed sale of land.
“In Venus Bay’s case, we’ve had a 30-year battle to stop the shire disposing of part of the one per cent open space land we have left in the town.
“But I’ve also had calls from people in other areas concerned about the shire’s plans to sell their land.
“They are concerned about the sale of these 23 allotments but also about what might happen in the future. What’s going to be sold next?”
Cr Kennedy said the ruling, under Section 89 of the Local Government Act, was that it was a contractual matter and therefore should be held in camera, but Cr Kennedy said he felt it was up to council’s discretion.
He said he believed council could discuss aspects of the land sales in open council.
He said there were several reasons why council might go into closed session for discussion and debate.
“A council or special committee may resolve that the meeting be closed to members of the public if the meeting is discussing any of the following: personnel matters; the personal hardship of any resident or ratepayer; industrial matters; contractual matters; proposed developments; legal advice or matters affecting the security of council property, and any other matter which the council or special committee considers would prejudice the council or any person.”
“At the December meeting of council, a committee of council was appointed to hear submissions on the proposed sale of 23 pieces of council land and to make recommendations to council.
“Their report will come back to council although I imagine they’ll also want to receive it in camera as well.”
Cr Kennedy said he also had concern about where the proceeds from land sales would go.
“It must be used to create new open space or to improve existing open space but that might mean improving the area around shire owned assets or even be spent on Stage II and III of Splash, you don’t know.
“We’ve got 1600 houses in Venus Bay and people are moving to the area to retire in steady numbers.
“We’ve also got something like 2370 allotments in the town and 29 pocket parks.
“We need all the public open space we can get.”
Cr Kennedy said the council land retained areas of native grasses and were frequented by native animals.
He said they should be protected not sold to raise revenue. Cr Kennedy was, however, mindful of the fact that council’s finances will be tight because of the state government’s decision to cap rates to a 2.5 per cent increase.
Land sale backlash
Groups apalled at being excluded from secret hearing
THEY’RE hardly likely to cause a stir.
In fact, if the South Gippsland Shire Council would allow the Foster and District Historical Society to address their land sales panel, they might actually learn something.
But having excluded this august group from the ‘in camera’ panel hearing, set down for Tuesday, February 9, the shire has opened itself up to a volley public criticism.
And it has already started to fly thick and fast.
The local history group has sent out a letter to every councillor, and also to the local press, describing how disappointed it is to have been “excluded” from making a presentation to the shire in relation to the proposed sale of the land at 2 Berry Street Foster.
“This is an extremely important site of a former Chinese market garden,” said Meg Rogers, president of the society, who noted that the group had already scheduled an archaeological dig at the site in the near future.
“As President of the Society, I wrote to the Shire on December 17, 2015 to register our objection to the sale, but we have been refused permission to present our objections at the hearing to be held on Tuesday. February 9. We are appalled that our voice is being silenced by the shire officers on this important issue,”
By their own admission, the society didn’t make a request to be heard when they initially sent in their submission.
But after discussing their concerns with other members of the local community, they were encouraged to address the panel.
They made a late request to be included, but no dice.
The shire has flatly turned them down.
Last Friday, after the historical society had sent out its protest letter, the shire CEO Tim Tamlin confirmed there would be no back down.
Cr Moyha Davies, who pressed the group’s claims with Mr Tamlin was clearly uncomfortable about the response.
“They’re going to be very disappointed with that response, I appreciate that,” Cr Davies said.
“But I will do my best to see that their concerns are expressed strongly.”
Prior to hearing from Mr Tamlin, Cr Davies had told the ‘Sentinel-Times’ that while she was aware the hearing was heavily booked, there might be a way for the society to address council before February 9.
“I’m afraid that’s not going to be possible,” she said after speaking with Mr Tamlin.
“There are no meetings scheduled before the panel meets,” she said.
Cr Davies said the proposed land sale process had been going on for a long time and council was keen to stick with a predetermined schedule for public consultation.
Submissions closed on Monday, January 4, 30 days after the community had been advised that the shire was looking to dispose of 23 blocks of land, all of them allegedly “surplus to council needs”.
“They are following the process set out in the legislation,” said Cr Davies.
There may be no “scheduled” meetings of council, but as Cr Kieran Kennedy proved on Wednesday last week, there can be unscheduled meetings called if there is a good reason or willingness by council.
Cr Kennedy forced all councillors to show up at a Special Council Meeting in Leongatha last Wednesday morning at 9am. He subsequently withdrew the motion which would have raised concerns about the land sales process, and the meeting was over by 9.04am.
But it proved a point.
The fact is a meeting could be called to hear late submissions and verbal presentations before the panel meets formally on February 9.
But the shire’s hierarchy, which is dependent on the proceeds of the land sales to make budget in the light of the State Government’s cap on rates, can’t allow the process to go off the rails, as it has done in the past.
As well as revealing that the panel hearing has been heavily over-subscribed with objectors, Cr Davies said the shire had received a lot of submissions, especially from Foster and Venus Bay.
It was at a public meeting in Venus Bay on Saturday, January 2, that community members were urged to make submissions against the sale of six council-owned allotments in the town and they responded in spades.
Residents there aren’t only concerned about losing the “public open space”, they also don’t want to see the money syphoned to pay for a redevelopment of Bair Street or Stages II and III of the Splash pool complex in Leongatha.
As well as being under pressure to pull back from the sale of the Venus Bay sites, there’s also opposition coming from all sides to the sale of 2 Berry Street, Foster; previously the subject of a 1000-name petiyion.
The hearing before a panel of selected shire councillors and officers on February 9 is closed to the public, allegedly because information revealed at the hearing might compromise the sale process