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Clarence Valley News

New twist in council defamation case saga



Mayor Peter Johnstone - Clarence Valley Council Defamation

New twist in council defamation case saga


By Tim Howard

The saga of Clarence Valley Council’s defamation action against a community group has taken another twist, with reports council’s general manager Laura Black will pay legal invoices arising from the action.

Council mayor Peter Johnstone did not the deny the claim, but would not comment further because it was an ongoing legal matter. Ms Black was on leave and unavailable for comment.

The secretary of Yamba Community Action Network, the target of the council’s action, Lynne Cairns, said it had been informed from a resident that there was a rumour about this.

Mrs Cairns said the group only has legal letters written by Sparke Helmore Lawyers on behalf of the council.

“The governing body of Clarence Valley Council are the elected councillors and therefore the legal action was taken in their name,” she said,

General Manager Laura Black - Clarence Valley Council Defamation

General Manager Laura Black

Yamba CAN has denied being responsible for any defamation and questioned why council took this action.

Mrs Cairns said the group was aware some councillors claimed the council never intended to take Yamba CAN to court.

Yamba CAN has requested councillors pass a written resolution stating that they have no intention to take Yamba CAN to court regarding the letter sent by Yamba CAN on July 12 2023 which stated that councillors had received some inaccurate information with regard to the Treelands Drive Community Centre project.

Mrs Cairns said Yamba CAN had not received formal notification about this matter.

The Northern Rivers Times is making no implication the council has acted improperly in these matters.

It does not seem likely the council plans to withdraw.

Prior to the September 26 council meeting, Cr Bill Day made three attempts to lodge a notice of motion to obtain copies of all correspondence surrounding the Concerns notice and potential litigation against Yamba CAN, but each one was rebuffed.

Cr Day said the general manager had “blocked him at every turn”.

Mayor Peter Johnstone - Clarence Valley Council Defamation

Mayor Peter Johnstone

“I thought it was a fair and reasonable request,” he said. “But if you turn to the September 26 council business paper, there is no notice of motion in there.”

Cr Day said in his 12 years experience as a local government councillor, he had never been party to legal action against the community.

“It’s regrettable and could be seen as an attempt to dissuade members of the community from saying things some people don’t want to hear,” he said.

“It’s also distressing that councillors have been denied access to documents that allow them to fulfil their role on council,” he said.

Cr Day said he disagreed with the views of some councillors that the matter was not legal action.
“Yamba CAN has a concerns notice, which is a legal document that is the start of a defamation action,” he said.

“By any definition that constitutes legal action.”

The saga goes back to July when the group revealed at its first annual meeting it had received a concerns notice claiming Yamba CAN had defamed Ms Black.

Ms Black denied it was a legal letter and then Mayor Ian Tiley said he was not aware of any legal action council had undertaken.

Yamba CAN’s legal advisor told the group the concerns notice was valid and allowed the council 12 months to mount a defamation case.

Yamba CAN has consistently denied it has defamed Ms Black and would contest any claim it had.


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Clarence Valley News

Councillor reveals “secret” SRV talks




Cr Bill Day has revealed council workshopped an SRV at the end of last year,

Councillor reveals “secret” SRV talks


By Tim Howard

Clarence Valley councillors and staff workshopped a special rates variation at a “secret meeting” at the end of 2023 a councillor  has revealed.

Cr Bill Day said council staff called a “secret” council workshop on November 9 last year to float  the idea of an “environmental levy” to fund community concerns about environmental issues.

But Cr Day believed the matter was clearly a way for the council to raise money as it was contemplated large scale borrowings for projects including the Regional Aquatic Centre and the Treelands Drive Community Centre.

Mayor Peter Johnstone has downplayed concerns about Cr Day’s issues, saying workshops were a regular feature of life in the council and nothing came of the matter raised.

“Workshops can be called by councillors, but this was called by staff,” Cr Day said. “It was called by staff to discuss a rate variation in time for an application to be made to IPART to approve before the budget discussions for this coming financial year.

“It would have required a council meeting in January if were to have happened.”

Cr Day said the subject of the meeting had been kept quiet because it would have caused outrage in the community.

“I didn’t even know what the subject was when I was on my way to the workshop,” he said.

“It was called a hot topic and we hold hot topics quite regularly and I went along and was quite amazed when it was about a special rates variation.”

The timing of the meeting also caused Cr Day and some other councillors, consternation.

“I usually don’t get angry. I usually manage to remain calm, but I was quite, let me say, quite upset.

“I spoke about how if the next council wanted to do anything as silly as this, they should take it on themselves.

“For a council approaching caretake mode to bring on something like this was not acceptable to me.”

Cr Bill Day has revealed council workshopped an SRV at the end of last year,

Cr Bill Day has revealed council workshopped an SRV at the end of last year,

Cr Day said the staff proposal clearly laid out how this SRV would be used to fund spending on environmental projects.

But Cr Day said it was quite easy to draw a link to the funding issues arising from borrowing for the projects.

“On the surface they laid out quite a case put forward by council staff for environmental matters, but obviously council’s capacity to do things without a levy are impacted by borrowings.”

Cr Day said the proposed SRV was also an indication the council would need to get used to functioning without the high level of grant funding that came after from the period of fires, flood and Cover.

“As we have found with the aquatic centre, grants are drying up very quickly,” he said.

Cr Day said he decided to raise the SRV proposal because the people were beginning to come forward as candidates for the next council election in September.

He noted that in previous elections some council candidates made political capital pre-election promising to not support an SRV only to change their minds when elected.

He linked this issue to his support for the rescission motion to reconsider a pay rise for the council general manager made at an extraordinary council meeting last Thursday,

“It’s called transparency,” he said. “I believe too much is done in secrecy by councils.”

He said ratepayers needed to ask questions of candidates prior to the election about their attitudes to an SRV and not to assume it was dead and buried.

The mayor said he recalled the meeting, but did not place the same significance on it.

“We discuss a lot of things at briefings and so on,” he said. “It was one of the things in the strategic plan that local people wanted more to done for the environment.

“One possible way of doing that would be to have some type of special rate variation or something like that to raise money that could be spent on the environment.

“The possibility was mentioned to councillors, but that was only one way of doing things and it wasn’t proceeded with.”

Cr Day and the mayor differed on their recollections of the tenor of the meeting..

“We had a bit of a discussion about the way these things would be funded, but certainly don’t remember anyone saying anything inappropriate,” he said.

The Mayor also agreed with Cr Day that it would have been inappropriate for an outgoing council to saddle a new council with an SRV.


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Clarence Valley News

Council splits over GM pay rise decision




Clarence Valley deputy Mayor Cr Greg Clancy commenting on the GM Pay rise decision.

Council splits over GM pay rise decision


By Tim Howard

Clarence Valley Council has effectively split in two over whether it should grant its general manager, Laura Black, a 2%, or $7200 a year, pay increase.

In a bizarre extraordinary meeting last Thursday, the council voted 5-4 in favour of a mayoral minute which outlined why Ms Black should get the pay rise.

But at the end of the meeting, which went into confidential session for debate, former deputy mayor Cr Greg Clancy handed Mayor Peter Johnstone a rescission motion, which will bring the matter of the pay rise back to council for the February 27 ordinary council meeting.

The result displeased Mayor Johnstone who was interviewed on Loving Life FM after the meeting.

“I’m disappointed it’s come up again and it will be up for further discussion,” he said.

“I would hope that the people involved will go through… they’ve got a copy of the full performance review – the general manager has put that up confidentially.

“I hope they’ll go through that and score it again.”

Cr Johnstone said councillors had to realise the performance review operated as a framework which the panel had to follow.

“The framework was set at the beginning, not other things they want to bring in,” he said.

“So if they could go back and score it and see what score they come up with and come up with a justification, then that’s obviously what I’d hope they’d be doing.”

But in an another radio interview soon after, former deputy Mayor Cr Greg Clancy revealed dissatisfaction with the performance review process.

Clarence Valley deputy Mayor Cr Greg Clancy commenting on the GM Pay rise decision.

Cr Greg Clancy said the rescission motion would give councillors who supported the general managers pay rise time to review their decision and change their vote.

He agreed with Cr Johnstone’s assessment of the framework, but said it amounted to little more than a box-ticking exercise.

Cr Clancy had been part of a general manager’s performance review panel last year and revealed his dissatisfaction with it.

“I did not remain in that meeting previously because I was not happy with the way the meeting was run,” Cr Clancy said.

Cr Clancy said he had never been happy with the performance review process, believing it to be too limited in scope.

“I don’t believe the process is rigorous enough to investigate certain issues, certain aspects in a thorough enough way,” he said.

Cr Clancy defended the rescission motion, which three other councillors also signed: former Mayor Ian Tiley, current deputy mayor Jeff Smith and Cr Bill Day.

He said bringing the matter back to the next council meeting, where it would have been discussed   in the normal course of events would allow any councillor who voted for the decision a chance to look at the issues and change his or or her mind.

There were a number of elements that made Thursday’s meeting truly extraordinary.

The four councillors who brought the rescission motion also called for the original extraordinary meeting.

They wanted to debate a motion to deal with a significant issue involving senior staff.

But without explanation other councillors decided to bring forward a Mayoral Minute calling for the general manager to get a pay rise based on her performance review.

Seeing this as a tactical move to disrupt their motion, the four decided to withdraw their request for the meeting, allowing the Mayoral minute to be heard alone.

Clarence Valley mayor Peter Johnstone commenting on the GM Pay rise decision.

Clarence Valley mayor Peter Johnstone said he was disappointed that a rescission motion for the decision to award council general manager Laura Black a pay rise would bring the matter back to council.

Then in the council chambers at 4pm on Thursday a contingent of around 15 council staff arrived, clearly to support the general manager.

The group stayed around after the meeting went into confidential session and filed back into the chamber and applauded when the decision was announced.

The council’s Code of Conduct section 7.6 has a 12 examples of how staff and councillors must not interact inappropriately.

Speaking to The Northern Rivers Times on Monday (Feb 19th, 2024), Mayor Johnstone had no issues with the staff attending the meeting.

He said they had Flexi-time employment arrangement which allowed them to attend outside their work hours.

“As a group of ratepayers, as has anybody in the general public, anybody has the right to come along to council meetings,” Cr Johnstone said.

“But what I would say here is that if there’s an issue here, then the people concerned raising the issue, anybody, can put in a Code of Conduct complaint about the matter and it will be investigated.”

Cr Bill Day said councillors who supported the general manager’s pay rise needed to put it into  perspective.

“Our State Member of Parliament, I looked up on the internet was paid in 2022 $172,576,” he said.

“A senior Minister, $333,072, a junior Minister $315,008. The Deputy Premier of NSW was paid $350,329.

“In 2023 they (the State Government) put a freeze on all the salaries, but the NSW Deputy Premier is paid approximately what the general manager of the Clarence Valley Council is paid.”

Cr Day was also concerned the Mayoral Minute appeared to make the general manager responsible for success of the entire council operation.

“It would be quite bizarre if a council employing nearly 500 staff couldn’t achieve anything,” Cr Day said.

“And there are negatives as well as positives. The community deserves to be shown the full picture.”


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Clarence Valley News

Pay rise for GM ‘obscene’ says councillor




Laura Black Pay rise

Pay rise for GM ‘obscene’ says councillor


By Tim Howard

Clarence Valley Council will award its general manager Laura Black a 2% pay rise – $7200 a year – if a mayoral minute to be heard at an extraordinary general meeting on Thursday is successful.

Mayor Peter Johnstone has brought forward the minute to note the Annual Performance Management report from the Performance Management Review Panel.

The panel recommended Ms Black receive a pay increase back dated to October 7 last year.

Cr Johnstone’s minute released with the business paper on Monday is a glowing endorsement of the general manager’s performance.

Over two pages he listed dozens of council’s programs and achievements as examples of the general manager’s strong leadership.

But the machinations behind the calling of this extraordinary meeting are bizarre.

It has been revealed four councillors: former mayor Ian Tiley and former deputy mayor Greg Clancy, the current deputy Jeff Smith and Bill Day, a councillor with experience on two different councils called the meeting.

They called it to deal with some matters concerning senior staff at council.

But Cr Clancy said there was a change in plans on Monday when other councillors called a rival extraordinary meeting to bring forward the mayoral minute.

“We decided for strategic reasons it was best to withdraw,” Cr Clancy said.

“The mayoral minute was going to be presented at the February 27 meeting and it seems fairly clear they brought forward their motion to undermine our motion.”

Cr Clancy said he was not sure why it was necessary to call an extraordinary meeting to deal with the mayoral minute, unless it was a tactical move.

“Extraordinary meetings are usually called to deal with business that’s urgent and can’t wait for the next monthly meeting,” he said.

“The general manager’s performance review would have been included in the February 27 meeting, so there’s no pressing reason it should have been called, unless it was designed to undermine ours.”

Cr Day was more outspoken.

He said the extraordinary meeting that would go ahead on Thursday “hijacked” the meeting first called.

“We could have held our meeting after the meeting to hear the mayoral minute, and risk our item being declared a direct negative of what had been just decided,” he said.

“We decided it best to withdraw and let them deal with the embarrassment of explaining why they had called an extraordinary meeting when one wasn’t needed.

“It’s strange politics.”

He described the move to award the general manager a pay rise in these times as “obscene”.

“The NSW Government has put a freeze on pay rises for politicians and senior staff,” he said.

“This is the only way, by a performance review, that a general manager can get an increase in remuneration.

“In a time of crazy inflation where people on fixed incomes and pensions are struggling to pay their rates, we’ve said ‘stuff you’ to pensioners, someone on $350,000 a year is not getting enough.”

The mayoral minute justified the decision increase Ms Black’s pay packet saying the Circular to Councils 23-11 from the Office of Local Government noted that the annual increments in salary that are normally awarded to general managers did not happen this year.

It said the reasons were explained in the circular, together with the statement that this was an unintended consequence of a decision made in respect to workers in state government.

The circular also explains that this consequence can be mitigated by councils by using the performance pay rise provisions in general managers contracts.

The CVC GM Performance Review panel recommended that this provision be used to increase the salary of Ms Black.

The Wage Price Index was 4% in September 2023 and the inflation rate was 5.6%. A 2% performance related pay increase would therefore suggest a drop in real terms when compared to inflation.

Mayor Johnstone said there was not escaping an extraordinary meeting on Thursday once the moves had been made.

He said under both the Local Government Act and the council’s Code of Meeting Practice once the call had been legally made the meeting had to proceed.

“I didn’t call the meetings, they were called by other councillors,” he said.

“I can’t comment on the motivations of other people.”

Cr Johnstone did not want to be drawn on the optics of giving a highly paid staff member a pay rise.

He noted that it was a process recommended in the Circular to Councils and when the review process had taken place the numbers had fallen that way.

But he said it was awkward for councils to deal with these matters because it was something that put councillors in the firing line.


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