Willow Court committee disappears again

THE Derwent Valley Council tonight rescinded its earlier decision to appoint a new committee to oversee development of the Willow Court heritage site. Councillor Barry Lathey successfully moved a motion of revocation, despite twice voting in favour of the new committee in recent months. The council overturned its two previous decisions to appoint a new committee and instead voted to invite expert and community advice.

The lengthy debate at tonight’s special council meeting kicked off with Mayor Tony Nicholson calling for a mover and seconder, then putting the matter to the vote without discussion. Several councillors objected, and so started a lengthy discussion.

Cr Martyn Evans was first to his feet, speaking strongly against Cr Lathey’s motion, which he said would vest all power over Willow Court in the mayor, general manager and Valley Vision project officer. He said he could not support the motion of revocation when the mayor had already alluded to the formation of a new committee on two occasions. He spoke of the council’s poor public perception in relation to Willow Court and said it was time to stop blaming the Federal Government for withdrawing unspent funds. He said he would move a new motion in favour of the elected council members taking responsibility for Willow Court development with the support of an advisory group.

Cr Craig Farrell agreed with Cr Evans and said it was time to move forward with Willow Court. He said the council should take responsibility, but it should also hold a community forum to keep the ratepayers informed and the council should appoint an advisory group rather than a new “special committee” as defined by the Local Government Act. Cr Farrell said he had received many expressions of interest and offers of support from eminent persons and members of the community. “We have had charge of Willow Court for a very long time and need to look at moving in a new direction, using the people who can advise us.”

Cr Richard Parker said he supported Cr Lathey’s effort to revoke a previous motion which had not been properly thought through. Both he and Cr Judy Bromfield said they felt the new motion was still not quite right.

Cr Lathey said he had raised the revocation issue because the council decision of May 23 had not addressed all the issues and did not give everybody in the community a chance to have a say. Referring to the disbanded Willow Court Redevelopment Special Committee, Cr Lathey said many people were not aware that the committee had no decision-making power and had only been able to make recommendations to council. “It has gone past its use-by date,” he said. “It is now time to move on.”

Mayor Tony Nicholson then put the motion of revocation, which was supported by all councillors except Mr Evans. Debate then turned to a new four-part motion: to hold a community forum in September; to seek public input about the disbanded committee at the forum; to seek public input about future development at the forum; and for Valley Vision project officer Ian Brown to report directly to the council with regard to any developments on any land or buildings in council ownership.

Cr Farrell was first to speak, pointing out that the intention of the now revoked motion had been to involve the public. “It has been stated in the Mercury and The Gazette that a new committee will be formed,” he said. Cr Farrell said he saw a role for an independent advisory committee rather than one under the auspices of Valley Vision. He foreshadowed an amendment to the new motion, to the effect that the council appoint an independent group of heritage experts, political representatives and community members.

Cr Jim Elliott said he was lost for words. He said his understanding of recent discussions was that there would be a series of public forums, not just one; and that the councillors themselves would be the new Willow Court committee. He said it was neither workable nor manageable to have too many people and too many ideas on a committee. He said the process had been too “procrastinated and messy” already. “I don’t support the idea of having a separate committee of so-called experts and people who may or may not come along to the meetings,” he said. “We should have constant updates going out to the public and give the public an opportunity to put ideas forward without an unwieldy committee.”

Deputy mayor Scott Shaw said it would be difficult to find suitable committee members at the public forum (as proposed by the rescinded motion) and cautioned councillors that they were dealing with a sensitive situation and a sensitive area.

Cr Parker said he was now opposed to establishing a new committee but he was open to Cr Farrell’s suggestion about advisors. “This council should invite people to advise us; to stand here, whether it be Damian Bester or the head of the National Trust,” he said. “There must be a dozen people in this town who would be prepared to advise us.”

Cr Shaw said he agreed with the advisory group idea, but it was necessary to talk about the structure of the group and how many people would be in it. He said greater use should be made of the council website as a way of sharing information.

Cr Elliott then asked if someone could tell him the difference between a “committee” and a “group”. Cr Farrell said committees were bound by certain rules and procedures whereas a “group” could be more informal. “If this process doesn’t work, at least we can say we tried. The project over there is beyond the scope of local government. It is time to call in some extra troops and get some help to make something we can be proud of.”

Cr Lathey then caused a minor stir when he spoke about the sale of the Willow Court oval to a developer. He corrected himself and said he was speaking hypothetically. “There is not much left over there owned by the council,” he said, before offering an incomplete list of council assets on the Willow Court site, omitting wards D, E, F, G and the historic but wrecked Frescatti cottage. He said if the council was able to sell the oval and the river flats area, it may have enough money to develop the remainder of the site. He did not support the notion of appointing an advisory group, as “advice is generally available when you ask for it.”

This prompted Mayor Tony Nicholson to enter the debate with a “point of order”. “Experts have already been consulted in the formation of conservation management plans,” Cr Nicholson said. He said these documents would “take a lot of reading”. “Before anyone can make an informed comment they should appraise themselves of the conservation management plans,” he said. Cr Bromfield turned to Damian Bester seated in the public gallery and asked if he had read the plans. Bester responded with a “thumbs up” gesture.

Cr Farrell said it was time to take Willow Court in a new direction, with the ambition of achieving more than had been achieved to date. “We need to be a little bit more open,” he said. Cr Elliott said there had previously been a good committee and he had spoken against disbanding it. “My understanding when we started this process was that we wanted to bring the people in. We also needed to look at where we were going with that property. Now we are going around in circles,” he said. “We should invite the public to come along and speak at any council meeting provided they provide the required notice.”

Cr Farrell said he was not suggesting a new committee. He said the previous committee had met at the behest of Valley Vision and its meetings were held “under a cone of silence”. He said the committee had seen tenders and business proposals that had not been made available to councillors.

Mayor Nicholson, who was chairman of the disbanded Willow Court committee, said the Tasmanian Heritage Council had stalled the committee for four years before finally realising that its concept of “adaptive re-use” of the Willow Court buildings was not acceptable to potential developers. He was dismissive of the idea of “bringing in so-called experts and outsiders with all their fancy ideas” and said developers would be used to dealing in a degree of confidentiality. “Having input from the public is a good idea, but to recreate a fairly nebulous group of advisors is going over old ground again.”

Cr Evans leapt to his feet and said the mayor had taken Cr Farrell’s proposal “way out of context”. “Cr Farrell is talking about bringing in people with ideas. It is a fantastic idea and [the advisory group] would not have to deal with confidential issues,” Cr Evans said.

“Who would deal with confidential issues?” Cr Nicholson asked. “THE COUNCILLORS!” Cr Farrell and Evans said in unison.

Cr Narelle Molan then spoke, saying she liked the idea of knowledgeable people being involved, and also the idea of using the council website as an information source.

The council then dealt with the motion on the table and Cr Farrell’s amendment that the council appoint an independent group to advise the council, to consist of heritage specialists, political representatives and community members.

Cr Parker said he was opposed to the word “group” as he believed the concept was for “advisors” as individuals, not a group.

Cr Bromfield said she would support the amendment if it said “advisors” rather than “group”.

Cr Lathey sought “clarification on what we are saying.”

Cr Farrell said he was happy for his amendment to say “independent advisors” rather than “group”.

Cr Elliott said he would prefer the amendment referred to “inviting” advisors, not “appointing” them.

Cr Lathey said: “If you use the word ‘appoint’ you are establishing a committee.”

Cr Farrell agreed for his amendment to have the effect that the council invite independent advisors including heritage experts, political representatives and community members.

Then, after 67 minutes of debate, councillors voted unanimously to hold quarterly public forums with the first in September; to seek public input about the disbanded committee at the forum; to seek public input about future development at the forum; for Valley Vision project officer Ian Brown to report directly to the council with regard to any developments on any land or buildings in council ownership; and for the council to invite independent… zzzzzz. Is anyone still awake?

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