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Grafton News

Ashley’s retirement a decision of the heart

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Going, going… Clarence Valley Council general manager Ashley Lindsay has begun his exit strategy from council. He went on long service leave on Friday and will officially resign in October next year.

Ashley’s retirement a decision of the heart

By Tim Howard

Four years of leading from the front for Clarence Valley Council general manager has taken its toll on the 22-year veteran of local government Ashley Lindsay.
Mr Lindsay, who came to the Clarence Valley from Sydney’s Northern Beaches to take up the finance manager’s role at Maclean Shire Council in 1999, retired last Friday after four of the toughest years in the region’s history.

Pitched into the role after the sudden departure of his predecessor Scott Greensill in March 2017, he found himself leading his council through crisis after crisis.
Some were self inflicted, like dealing with the asbestos uncovered on the site of the council’s controversial South Grafton depot build.
Others, like imposing a three-year rate hike through a special rates variation and meeting the State Government’s Fit for the Future requirements, were imposed from outside.
And the triple whammy of drought, fire and floods which devastated the Valley in quick succession between 2018 and 2020, was definitely a force of nature.
And as he considered his exit strategy to retirement, Mr Lindsay has found himself leading the council through a once-in-a-century pandemic, which has turned this term of council into a five-and-a-quarter-year marathon.

“I originally intended to work with the new council for the first few months after the election in September and then go about now,” he said.
That time frame went out the window when the election, originally postponed for 12 months from September last year, was put off until December 4.
Mr Lindsay contemplated altering his plans until a “health scare” in mid May reframed his view of the job.
“The health scare that I had, that certainly gave me some direction on what I should do and that was get out of a stressful environment,” he said.
Typically Mr Lindsay downplayed the “scare”.

It was actually a potentially lethal brush with ventricular tachycardia, which in his case was the bottom chambers of his heart beating out of synch with the top chambers.
The result was lack of oxygen reaching the brain and his decision to go to hospital rather than go home for a lie down, saved his life.
“I was lucky, my heart rate was 217 when I got on the table,” he said.

“They hit me with the paddles. I was wide awake. I jumped. I felt like I hit the roof
“It whacked my heart back into rhythm. Then I went off to Lismore and Gold Coast and had the pacemaker put in. If I’d gone home, I would have laid down. It would have been it.”

Council amalgamation is another issue that has played out during his time in Clarence Valley councils and he has changed his views on it over time.
But he also believed the State Government could have handled the 2004 version in a more financially responsible fashion.
“I marched up the main street of Maclean with all the other staff, opposing the amalgamation when it was being considered,” he said.
Mr Lindsay found himself right at the coal face when the call to amalgamate came.

“I took the call from the Minister for Local Government (Tony Kelly),” he said. “Ross Bryant was the general manager of the day and he was away at the time.
“So I took the call, that said ‘your council’s been sacked’.”

But unlike the 2016 round of council amalgamations, where councils received between $10 million and $15 million from the government to smooth the process, the new Clarence Valley Council was left to fend for itself.

Accompanying the amalgamations were regulations forbidding forced staff redundancies for three years, but there was an even bigger and more costly challenge that soaked up any savings amalgamation might have meant for the new council.

“It was significant for us to get all the offices networked up for IT purposes,” he said.
“We had to go to tender for a new corporate finance system.

“Initially the councils operated from the amalgamation date through to July 1 2005 we were using the former councils’ accounting systems.
“So Grafton, Copmanhurst, Maclean and Pristine Waters. We were all paying the staff with the former council’s accounting systems, then consolidating those to create the first set of accounts for Clarence Valley Council.”

He said the inability of the council to exploit the efficiencies of amalgamation allied to the failure of state government to subsidise the costs, contributed to the need for the Special Rates Variation which jacked up rates by 8% a year from 2018-19 to 2020-21.
The amalgamation also turned a lot of the public against the council and more than 17 years later many in the community would like to see the decision reversed.
But Mr Lindsay is not one of them.

He described the merger of the four general purpose and two county councils as “the best outcome for local government in the Clarence Valley”.
“The organisation now has the capacity to meet the various challenges that face local government,” he said.
“We’ve got greater capacity. The replacement of the timber bridges is a great example.

“The organisation has a greater capacity to manage. We’ve got $31 million in grant money to replace 31 timber bridges.
“Some of those we’re doing ourselves, through us managing the project. Others we’re working with Transport for NSW and Kyogle Shire Council through a joint tender process.”

Working at this scale both allowed the council to fix a problem that’s been building in the region for decades and create some real cost savings.
“Long term that’s a significant operating cost reduction for us, because those bridges should last 100 years,” he said.
He also said the council’s decision to stop borrowing and reduce its debt will pay dividends.

“I think the general fund should be debt free by 2027-28 – and that’s not far away – that will be an annual saving of between $3 million and $4 million a year that can be allocated to other infrastructure.”
While Mr Lindsay was confident he was handing over the council in a better state than when he took control, there was still a major financial issue to work on.
“On the downside of things, we still don’t meet out infrastructure benchmarks,” he said.

“Asset management and identifying and putting together everything we look after has been a real challenge.
“We’ve discovered in the last 12 months a number of assets that flood plain and water assets that we didn’t have on our books.
“What that’s done, it’s increased our depreciation which has impacted on our operating performance ratio.

“I believe council’s in a sound financial position, but it’s still got some way to go to address the infrastructure renewal that’s required and do it at the right time.”
Mr Lindsay also has some thoughts on his replacement.

There was some controversy about the council appointing governance director Laura Black as acting general manager when Mr Lindsay stepped down.
Council voted 5-4 in favour of Ms Black, but the five supporting votes came from councillors not contesting Saturday’s poll.
Mr Lindsay was concerned the new council might overturn that decision.

“That would be disappointing,” he said. “I don’t think the council had a good experience when Stuart McPherson left, they appointed an acting general manager from outside the organisation.

“I feel the councillors of the day found it was not a good experience for them.
He said in discussions with the mayor and senior staff decided to seek stability in the team.

“We’ve only just appointed a new director of environment and planning and the director of works and civil, Jamie Fleeting only been here 18 months,” Mr Lindsay said.
“We’ve embarked on significant change in the organisation. Were still trying to put together the new organisational structure.
“Laura is very much aware of the direction we’re taking and what we need to achieve.
“She has a very good understanding of the new integrated planning and reporting requirements for the council.”
While the council has been a part of for more than two decades begins to reshape itself, Mr Lindsay was looking forward to getting away from it all and returning to his home town of Warialda to spend time with his parents.

“I haven’t been able to get home for more than six months, so that’s one of the first things on my agenda,” he said.
But the council staff hasn’t seen the last of him as he plans to continue his fortnightly Brekky with the Boss sessions he started when he came to the job.
“I cook a barbecue breakfast and staff have a chance to talk with me about issues at work,” he said.

It’s also a chance for us to recognise staff achievements and hand out awards to recognise milestones in careers and other achievements.”

 

Grafton News

Staff recognised at STRIVE Awards

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The Northern Rivers Times Edition 76

Staff recognised at STRIVE Awards

Clarence Valley Council has acknowledged the contributions of some of its top-performing staff of 2021 in the STRIVE Awards ceremony.
The annual awards are held in recognition of staff members who are considered by peers to have performed outstandingly in line with the organisation’s STRIVE values through seven awards that reflect these values.
While the Award ceremony celebrates the specific achievements of a few staff, Acting General Manager Laura Black said it was important to acknowledge all staff working at Clarence Valley Council this year. For the first time staff from across the organisation were brought together in one location.
“As an organisation we cover a large geographical footprint and it’s fair to say the logistics of being in the one place at the one time, while maintaining essential services, is not easy. However, after 17 years of being an established organisation, I believe it was an essential element of operating as one organisation and I thank the staff working group who assisted me in making this happen”, said Ms Black.
“This has been another challenging year for our employees”, she said.
“Although unsurprisingly, they have shown amazing resilience and commitment to the purpose of the organisation and to servicing the community and it’s important to recognise them for their contributions in 2021.”
The end-of-year event was held at Clarence River Jockey Club in Grafton and blended staff development activities with celebrating success.
The event was opened with a Welcome to Country by Bundjalung staff member Chris Mitchell, and featured talks by inspirational speakers Michael Crossland and Jennifer Dowd from the Westpac Rescue Helicopter Service.
Strive Champion of the Year, Leah Munro, said it was a career highlight to be recognised by her peers.
Leah received her award for stepping up into a project management role and in the Prince St office refurbishment, delivered her first major project.
“I would like to thank my project team and their enormous support during the build,” she said.
“The project was a huge learning curve for me, but I enjoyed the challenge and like all projects, came with many obstacles that the team overcame together.
“The most exciting part though was seeing the positive reactions of my workmates when they first entered the finished building.
“I sit back now and look around and say, wow we really did it.
“The awards today
have showcased some extraordinary people here at Clarence Valley Council, and I am proud to be celebrating their achievements with them.”
Through Council’s merit-based recruitment process Leah has now attained a role as a permanent Project Officer and will go on to add to her career highlights delivering major community asset construction projects across the Valley.

A full list of winners can be found below:

Award winners
Trainee – Apprentice Achievement Award: Kasey Shannon
Health & Safety – Safety Star Award: Lyndsay Carmichael
Innovation – Ideas Champion: Cliff Dredge, Josh Gorman, Zac Allen
Customer Focus – Above & Beyond Service Award: Louise Tyrie, Tracy Sowell, Jacqui Hinshaw
Community Engagement Champion: Shirley King
Cross Unit Collaboration: Lindy Johnson, Doug McKenzie, Vicki Marsh, Denis Banks, Ben McPhee
Strive Champion of The Year: Leah Munro

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Grafton News

Emergency call saves hotel from disaster

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The scene outside the Village Green Hotel, Grafton, early on Friday morning.

Emergency call saves hotel from disaster

By Tim Howard

A quick-thinking cleaner has saved an iconic Grafton watering hole from serious damage says Grafton Fire and Rescue captain Garry Reardon.
The cleaner at The Village Green Hotel was working early on Friday morning when he noticed smoke coming from the kitchen around 6am.
He opened the door but was left reeling when a column of smoked billowed from the room.
He called Triple-0 which alerted fire, police and ambulance services to attend the hotel.

Grafton Fire and Rescue personnel in breathing apparatus give the all clear to staff after removing the source of the emergency, a crate of smouldering cleaning cloths, from the building.

Grafton Fire and Rescue personnel in breathing apparatus give the all clear to staff after removing the source of the emergency, a crate of smouldering cleaning cloths, from the building.

The cleaner told emergency services he had dumped a load of washed cleaning cloths into a clothes dryer then put the hot, dried items into a milk crate on a bench.
Mr Reardon said it appeared there was enough oil still in the cloth for them to be combustible and they spontaneously ignited.
“It was really lucky the smoke was spotted early,” he said. “If they had been allowed to go another 20 or 30 minutes there would have been flames, which could have created a real problem.”
Mr Reardon said the hot material from the drier most likely created an exothermic reaction which allowed heat to build up until it reached ignition point.
“The presence of cooking oil in the cloth would only have accelerated this process,” he said.
A manager at the hotel, Mark Knott, was also at the scene.
He said there had been no fault with what the staff had done.
“We’ve been doing the same thing every day for 20 years and not had any problems,” he said.
“It’s something we’re going to look at and we’ll have to make some changes.”
Mr Reardon said it was a reminder to anyone that the rag you use to polish or clean something could retain some chemicals that make it potentially flammable.

Grafton Fire and Rescue personnel hose down the smouldering rags responsible for the call out.

Grafton Fire and Rescue personnel hose down the smouldering rags responsible for the call out.

“In this case the message to the staff is not to pile cleaning cloths together after taking them from the drier, but spread them out to let the heat escape,” he said.
Two Grafton Fire and Rescue trucks attended, plus ambulance and police.
Fireman carried the partially melted crate contained the still-smouldering material and played a hose on it for a few seconds.
There was no significant damage to the building and Mr Reardon told hotel management they could trade as normal.

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Grafton News

“Unreasonable complainant” vindicated

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Mayor Jim Simmons

“Unreasonable complainant” vindicated

By Tim Howard

A Yamba woman Clarence Valley Council branded an “unreasonable complainant” has been vindicated in the findings of independent regulator the Information Privacy Commission.
In a report released last month, the commission found the council erred in refusing a GIPA request from Lynne Cairns for documents linked to a controversial development application for a property on the Yamba canals.
On November 5, council general manager Ashley Lindsay emailed an apology to Mrs Cairns for refusing her request.
“We got it wrong,” Mr Lindsay said. “I’ve apologised to Mrs Cairns and I have staff working on getting the documents she has asked for.”
He was reluctant to discuss how the council failed to correctly apply the GIPA (Government Information (Public Access) Act) legislation.
Although Mr Lindsay advised Mrs Cairns to make a GIPA application, by the time the request came in June, he was on sick leave and the decision to refuse was made by the acting general manager, Laura Black.
Also in April Mrs Cairns made a formal complaint to Mayor Jim Simmons, informing him she thought the council was failing its GIPA requirements.
Cr Simmons replied to Mrs Cairns in May, saying redacted copies of the documents would be sent to her within three days. That didn’t happen.
Mr Lindsay was at a loss to explain the handling of the GIPA request.
“We should have assessed the GIPA request in accordance with the legislation,” Mr Lindsay said.
“This is no excuse, but I wasn’t at work at the time, I wasn’t aware of the GIPA application until … we got that letter from IPC.
“So I can’t really comment on why we didn’t deal with it properly.”
Mr Lindsay agreed the acting general manager, Ms Black, during the period, was “well qualified”.
“I can’t really comment further,” he said. “My response to Mrs Cairns is that I’ve apologised and staff are working on getting the information she requested in line with the GIPA legislation.”
Council took another look at the development early in the year.
It inspected the works in February 2021 and ordered modification request and a fresh DA for works completed, under construction or to be built.
Mr Lindsay said council had provided some of the information she requested, which was included when the modification request and the new DA were submitted earlier in the year, hinting staff frustration with her persistent requests might have been behind the GIPA request refusal.
There are hints council staff viewed the residents’ objections as unimportant.
In reports to the May meeting about the new DA and the request for modification it noted the original DA approach “was not well received” and result in a “high level of scrutiny during the construction phase”.
Mrs Cairns said she and her husband were not the only ones concerned as council had removed the as built non-complying, unlawful structures into a new DA in order that these structures complied.
Council removed Point 14 of Conditions of Consent from the new DA “All structures located within the 7.5 metre rear building alignment shall not exceed 1.2 metres in height from existing ground level.”
Submissions against the DA included 40 signatures in a petition as residents knew this would set a precedent which could potentially impact their views, sun, breeze and devalue their properties.
But neighbours were not happy as the as built development differed from the original DA, did not comply with regulations and were not included in the original plans including a retractable privacy screen, a water tank and a 4m high privacy screen, from ground level, just behind the revetment wall.
Council’s May reports said “council progress inspections did not occur during construction works”.
“Residents in the canal have just watched the unlawful, non-complying development being constructed, emailed the general manager and he took five months until he finally had a staff member telephone the builder to stop working on the development,” she said.
Mrs Cairns emailed in May 2021 asking why council hadn’t acted in accordance with its planning acts, regulations and enforcement policy. No response was provided.
Mr Lindsay also noted the council was not the only organisation providing information for Mrs Cairns.
“It’s not just staff here that are running around after her,” he said. “She’s got people at the IPC, NSW Ombudsman and the Office of Local Government chasing up information for her.”
The dispute over the 19 Gumnut Rd DA goes back more than two years.
Mrs Cairns, and other residents who live near the property accused the council of mismanaging a development application the owners had lodged for a deck, studio, carport and awning council staff approved under delegated authority in 2019.
Council had ignored photos and wording in Mr and Mrs Cairns submissions in November 2019 prior to original DA approval.
These photos showed the development had been partially constructed prior to DA approval and asked whether a survey was done.
Council ignored this for nearly 18 months. Mrs Cairns received a copy of a basic survey, for the first time, on May 12, dated March 26 after the development had been constructed.
The constructed building is within the required setback and it did not meet the required floor height as required on flood liable land according to council flood mapping.
Between March and June 2021, she was in regular contact with the council, through Ms Black, seeking the documents.
On June 28 Ms Black advised Mrs Cairns that month’s council meeting had resolved the matter and the council would no longer provide her with information about the developments.
On June 30 Mrs Cairns lodged a GIPA request, which the council rejected a week later, based on Section 51 of the GIPA Act, which allow requests to be rejected if they cause “an unreasonable diversion of the agency’s (CVC) resources.”
A week later Mrs Cairns lodged a request with the IPC for a review of the council’s decision.
The council went a step further, late in July, when Ms Black informed Mrs Cairns council staff would no longer interact with her, unless it was regarded as an emergency or an electoral matter and that she had become an “unreasonable customer complainant” – a declaration that would stay in force for six months.
Mrs Cairns said her status as an unreasonable customer complainant had not been resolved.
She knows of two men who have been in almost constant email communication with the council since 2017 and the result was the governance office made an appointment to speak with them. Both men provided email confirmation of this.
“The governance officer stayed there for three hours discussing their issues,” she said.
“Neither of these fellows have been claimed as unreasonable complainants, so it’s inconsistently applied policy.”
In August Mrs Cairns lodged a formal complaint about Ms Black with Mr Lindsay, who had returned to work after a lengthy illness break.
At the same time she informed Mr Lindsay of her GIPA request, which he claimed to know nothing about until after the IPC findings were released.
Mr Lindsay said while the GIPA request was not handled well, the substantive matters behind it were not in question.
“We had three independent assessments of the work done at 19 Gumnut Rd and all agreed the variations were of a minor nature and the as built items were compliant,” he said.
“They had gone above and beyond the original DA approvals, but that’s why we required a modification request and a new DA.”
Mr Lindsay said the property owner’s decision to begin works before getting consent had put council in a difficult position.
“We have a policy of retrospective approval in these situations, if the work is assessed as complying with our planning codes,” he said.
“We can’t just refuse something because work began before consent was given. There are State laws which say if work is compliant, then it’s legal.
“We would be in real trouble if we refused it or ordered it to be taken down if a court found the work complied with the rules.”
Mrs Cairn said the variations were not “minor” as confirmed in the DA Lodgement Checklist Modification of Development Consent with s4.55(2) ticked.
She said council reports were not accurate.
Mrs Cairns said the reports mentioned a portion of the decking was exempt under the State Environment Planning Policy (SEPP) (Exempt and Complying Development Codes) 2008.
“The area that exceeds the SEPP is conservatively calculated at less than 11sqm and is considered a minor variation.”
Mrs Cairns obtained assistance from a building surveyor to calculate the decking exempt under SEPP and this is 25sqm.
The amount of decking constructed as described on the new plans was 122.6sqm.
Upon inquiry to council’s planning section email replied “the codes SEPP does not permit variations and neither of the current applications before council are exempt/complying so the Codes SEPP is not applicable.”
She said there were 10 variations to council’s development control plan not two as claimed in the council reports.
Mrs Cairns wondered why Clarence Valley Council was so far out of step with other regional councils in providing information on its website.
“I’ve done research on Ballina, Armidale, Port Macquarie and Coffs Harbour,” she said.
“All of those councils have the majority of those DA documents available on their websites.
“Probably the most user friendly one is Ballina. It just brings up the documents and you can look at it. No redactions whatsoever.
“If our council would follow that, it would save them a lot of time and resources.”
Mr Lindsay said the council’s website was a work in progress.
“We’ve just made some changes to it and I know there are more changes to come,” he said.
“I’m not aware of what other councils are doing, but I agree in principle that easier access to documents is the best way to go.”
Mrs Cairns said she has been advised the outcome of NSW Ombudsman’s inquiry in relation to 19 Gumnut Rd states.
It said “the Ombudsman’s office cannot replace council’s discretion to make planning decisions.”
In relation to being branded an “unreasonable complainant” Mrs Cairns is awaiting a further response, however the Ombudsman’s office found “council had departed from its unreasonable complainant procedure.”

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