Coffs Harbour City Councillor grilled over lack of land disclosure

Cr Sally Townley. Photo: Coffs Harbour City Council.


EXPLOSIVE debate among councillors unfolded at a recent Coffs Harbour City Council meeting regarding a lack of disclosure of land ownership by Cr Sally Townley and her eligibility to run for Council.

Community outrage spread across social media last week following allegations on the Coffs Harbour City Council Elections 2021 Forum social media page on Facebook that Cr Townley, a Bellingen resident, purchased a very small parcel of land in the Coffs Harbour electorate for $510 to enable her to run for Council.

An admin post on the page also alleges that Cr Townley failed to disclose her ownership of the parcel of land to Council, which was allegedly purchased in May 2020.

The Local Government Act 1993 requires councillors to lodge a Disclosure of Interest at the end of each financial year.

Members of the public Facebook page have questioned whether Council rates are being paid on this small parcel of land, and the legitimacy of being a local councillor on the basis of this land ownership.

At Council’s meeting on Thursday 14 October, councillors debated the Register of Disclosure of Interests by Councillors and Designated Persons for the period July 2020 – June 2021.

Cr Keith Rhoades instigated a line of questioning at the meeting regarding a lack of disclosure of councillor ownership of the above-mentioned property.

“In the disclosures tonight we’ve got a disclosure in there about a block of land, it’s identified as Lot 8 Lyons Road in Sawtell,” Cr Rhoades stated.

“This used to be owned by Council, it’s now owned by a councillor.

“It was transferred to the councillor in the year 2019/20 financial year.”

Council’s General Manager Steve McGrath refuted this claim and confirmed that the land was not owned by Council, but was among a number of parcels sold by Council for unpaid rates.

“It was never owned by Council,” Mr McGrath stated.

“Council can sell land that has had rates outstanding for five years.”

Cr Rhoades continued his line of questioning on the matter and expressed his concern over the issue.

“I and many residents at the present moment are very concerned,” he said.

“I think councillors are fully aware over the last 24-48 hours there’s been some commentary out in the community, in these disclosures before us tonight.”

Cr Rhoades questioned what the reserve was for this land for the sale.

Cr Townley then called a point of order on how relevant the issue was to Council discussion on this year’s disclosures of interest.

“How is this relevant?” Cr Townley asked.

Cr Rhoades replied “because it’s in this year’s disclosures that we are asked to vote on”.

“This particular block of land is in those disclosures,” he stated.

“These are what the community want to know about that disclosure on that block of land that’s in tonight’s business papers for resolution by Council tonight.”

Cr Rhoades alleged that it was not disclosed to Council in previous disclosures of interest in 2019/20 that a councillor owned that particular property.

“That is of concern,” Cr Rhoades stated.

“There has been a breach of conduct, it could be a matter that should go to ICAC.”

Mayor Denise Knight at this stage of the discussion intervened and said “Cr Rhoades please”, in response to his line of questioning.

However, Cr Rhoades continued to raise questions and asked if there were “rates payable on this block”.

Cr Townley interjected and called a second point of order in relation to the consistent line of questioning on the issue.

“This is not relevant at all to this year’s disclosures,” Cr Townley stated.

“Are you gonna ask everyone else about the entitlement of their property?

“This is absolutely not relevant.”

Cr Rhoades continued and said he believed the block identified in the disclosures being discussed was sold for $510.

Cr Tegan Swan then called another point of order.

“Madame Mayor I find this inappropriate, the disclosures are about listing properties not the details and this is personal and a level of scrutiny that shouldn’t be subject to a councillor because it’s not included in what we have to disclose,” Cr Swan stressed.

Cr Rhoades, however, stated that both he and the community wanted to know these details
“The community is asking these questions because there is a very big grey area around this,” Cr Rhoades said.

“I want to know and the community want to know.

“This block of land is identified in the disclosures before councillors tonight, it is available to the public to view, it is a public document.”

Mr McGrath confirmed for Cr Rhoades that the parcel of land was sold by auction, and cautioned councillors about making allegations about breaches of the Code of Conduct.

“I would draw Council’s attention to the Code of Conduct,” Mr McGrath stated.

“The Code is very specific about things, and one of those things is that allegations of breach of the Code of Conduct should not be made in a public forum.

Mr McGrath suggested that if there were concerns by members of Council or the community that there had been a breach of the Code of Conduct to lodge a complaint through the proper channels.

“It’s not appropriate for public allegations to be made by anyone,” Mr McGrath stressed.

Cr Swan expressed her disappointment over the line of questioning.

“I feel the disappointing intent of that line of questioning was to undermine a certain councillor’s ability to run (for Council),” she stated.

Cr Paul Amos agreed and called the line of questioning “tacky”.

“I think this is very tacky and it should be beneath the councillors to take this line of questioning,” Cr Amos stated.
“I think we should just move on.”

Mayor Denise Knight also agreed that it was “tacky” and “below the belt”.

“I agree with everybody, I think this is tacky, it’s below the belt,” Cr Knight said.

“If you feel that there has been any wrongdoing we do have a Code of Conduct to abide by, but this is below the belt, particularly this close to going into Caretaker (mode) and I don’t agree with the discussion that’s been going on.”




Cr Keith Rhoades. Photo: Coffs Harbour City Council.

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