Community unease with the CHCC – How did this all come about?

We are fortunate to have some highly enlightened contributors expressing clearly the reality of our city’s situation. Amongst a plethora of infrastructure problems, the CCS has been the longest-running.

By Tom Strickland AO

Over a calming cup of coffee, or something more substantial, one may wonder – how did we ever get into this mess? Did we naively trust that no one could/would masterfully orchestrate a manipulation of our Cultural facilities?  

Were we remiss in not recognising the decisions being made? The history of our past Council’s carries interesting warning signals of the current crisis, particularly during the current initial four-year term. As you form an opinion, consider how these actions may have paved the way for our current predicament.

Our Mayor campaigned successfully in 2008 on a modern Entertainment Centre/Civic Space platform to replace our Civic Centre. Thirteen years later, we are no closer to this goal.

The State Government sold Council the whole of City Hill for (only) $50,000 under a covenant that the land was to be developed as a Cultural Precinct. This magnificent site has enormous potential for a Cultural Precinct worthy of our city.

Council commissioned an architect, and a beautiful concept was exhibited for City Hill (see below).

Yet after investing so significantly, Councillors were advised by the GM that the State Mapping showed City Hill was adversely affected by water. (I believe this turned out to be a tiny part of the southern swamp on the South-East corner where the Council now proposes to erect a storage facility for excess Museum items.) 

Unfortunately, Councillors accepted this, in my opinion, dubious advice all too quickly and abandoned the City Hill project without further investigation. 

Rumours circulated that Council saw commercial real estate profitability in overturning the Covenant attached to City Hill. Simultaneously, the CBD was in decline,  giving rise to the emphasis on promoting high rise construction to prop up our ailing CBD. 

Changing direction from election commitments, our Mayor became devoted to the severely cramped Gordon Street CCS project.

Following a carefully managed community consultation process, Councillors were advised of disunity within cultural groups on their priorities for a Cultural Precinct. This advice was not consistent with views held by the wider community. This selectively acquired opinion resulted in a resolution passed in 2018 setting the Entertainment Centre apart from the Cultural Space.

It all appeared innocent enough – at the time.  No one foresaw the opportunity created by this resolution for the appropriation of this “Civic Space” as new Council Chambers. 

When announcing the CCS, the community generally accepted that the CCS contained the long-awaited replacement of our Civic Centre. Few had noticed or interpreted the impact the earlier resolution would have.

From questions raised, citizens realised the new Council Chambers proposed for Gordon Street denied council access to significant Government grants as a cultural space. The CCS was not solely “Cultural” but had “Civic” components included – no doubt to validate the dominant chamber/offices taking pride of place in the new building. The State Government withdrew a previous approval of $9million, committed for cultural building purposes.

Early in the current Council, a Councillor had to withdraw through ill health. It appears that it was still early enough in the term of Council that the next eligible candidate, Mark Sultana, could be granted any vacant Councillor seat.  

Council appears to have granted monthly approvals for leave of absence to the ill Councillor until the replacement eligibility had expired.  A resignation was then received, creating a vacancy for a Councillor, but this now required an election.

Council made application to the Minister for Local Government to function with eight Councillors until the elections of September 2020. Ostensibly, the request was to avoid the cost of an election.

Ministerial approval resulted in a Council equally divided, thus facilitating the Mayoral Casting Vote to overpower the recurrent 4/4 vote gridlock that followed. For the past 2.5 years, every 4/4 dead-locked vote on CCS did not follow the motion convention as being lost.

This is known as Speaker Denisons (Speaker Denison pictured below) rule and has been written about in CCO at length over the past two and a half years. See the following as but one example

Speaker Evelyn Denison

Instead, the Mayor repeatedly used the ‘casting vote’ despite the uproar within the community. The Mayor has ruled omnipotently in all CCS matters for over two years.

The Minister for Local Government ignored desperate efforts by anxious citizens to draw attention to our plight. The single message arising from the Minister’s Office was that we have only one method to address our problem: to elect the candidates who will serve the people’s will at the next election.  Patiently we waited for September 2020 to address our concerns, further exacerbated by the Ministers’ deferring the election date firstly for one year, and now a further three months.

By December 4 this year this council will have been in place for five years and three months.

To the credit of the four gallant Councillors Amos, Rhodes, Swan and Arkan, although denied the natural right of a democratic vote, they laboured diligently during those years to defend the truth.

To quote our learned contributor Bill Jones: 

“You can’t make this stuff up”!


Lead photo: COUNCIL CHAMBERS 1970-1990 – demolished supposedly to ultimately provide an entertainment centre.

15 thoughts on “Community unease with the CHCC – How did this all come about?

  1. Well done Tom you covered it perfectly and to the point should make interesting reading to those who really didn’t know the full story and hopefully guide them to consider very carefully how they vote at the “coming” LGA Election .

    1. Yes Bill, perfectly and simply put, a fair amount of negative scheming has gone on with Knight and gang. In my opinion the ill Councillor was her finest deed,no one would normally be on that kind of sick leave time, but it served a purpose and we got the the casting vote…coincidence ?????? I think not.

      Have heard a rumor the said ex-Councillor may be wanting to run for council this time after improved health…I voted for this person and blindly helped Knight..and now? “Not happy Jan!”

      1. The stench wafting from Knight’s mismanagement and unethical behaviour (vote twice to get your own way), is compounded by suspicions regarding the “ill Councillor” fiasco.
        Was this simply pathetic management, another Denise Knight stuff-up, or was it a carefully managed ‘rort’, with the “ill Councillor” possibly complici? Designed to give Knight the power of the casting vote? We’ll never know. We do know, however, that smoke and fire go together, and that the “ill Councillor” is an avid supporter of Knight’s Monument, so I’d suggest that there are at least 15 000 voters who would reject this person as a future council candidate.

        CCO Editor: We have no doubt the Councillor in question was ill. Other questions following on from that do have some validity in our view however.

  2. Congratulations Tom Strickland. Well written, you have captured what has happened to us, the people of Coffs Harbour.
    Over the past few months I have personally, become increasingly aware of not just this social and economic injustice, but many other changes that have been implemented which, in my opinion, do not serve the greater population of Coffs Harbour.
    Add to this failures in my view to address shortcomings in essential services, failure to implement infrastructure budgets, failure to carry out works following receipt of government grants. The use of funds collected for one purpose, applied to something totally unrelated.
    As time rolls on, my initial resolve to stand up for what has traditionally been a very proud, united community, now fractured and disunited,has only strengthened.
    Bring it on.

  3. Thanks for a great summary Tom. Active objectors have been labelled as philistines, rather than seen as voices of reason. The council created hubris has made it a challenge to wade through the rhetoric and seek clarity regarding costs – costs that our community will carry for many a long year.
    Constant obfuscation from the Mayor, GM & senior staff has resulted in distrust and a change of the guard cannot come soon enough.

    Editor: Although the Minister of Local Government seems determined to continually slow that change of guard Bonnie.

  4. Thank you, Tom. Clear and concise, to the point, and imparting information. On the latter, I wasn’t aware of the request to the Minister to allow Council to operate with eight councillors — that’s highly significant and I think points to decision-making going on behind the scenes that has led us to the current state of affairs regarding the CCS-idea.

    A concern I’ve long held is how this council degenerated into what it became, and still largely is. The difficulty is to try to look beyond the quick response that people are ill-intentioned. An example of this is liberal and conservative susasion which upon investigating ends with the conclusion that people do think very differently from one another. In Council’s case, I’ve no doubt that backs have been turned on the spirit of good governance, yet for reasons that are not ill-intentioned, so it’s overall a blurry area to try to comprehend.

    Back to the degeneration of Council for a sec. Being in the job too long, without a corrective mechanism, leads ever to a public official heading off down a path of being too convinced of their righteousness. You get it at the federal level when there’s no strong Opposition, which Australia suffered for years.

    But the element of Michael Adendorff being included into the local council has I feel emboldened the directions taken. In observing his reasoning he can be easily regarded as one-dimensional, which is unfortunate, as there’d be more to him. A council is a crucible, and personalities come to light in strong ways, not so often wholesomely.

    So this question is central. Would you move to another country, get elected to a community’s local council, then sell off their sole remaining historical property of immense significance? Then provide this: “You’ll feel nostalgic for a while but you’ll get over it”? Would you do that?

    George Cecato has done the same. His reasoning is: “I will vote to sell this property because Council has resolved this sale to form part of the finance for the CCS(sic)”. In other words: I’ll make a bad decision based on a prior bad decision.

    These are single-minded elements, that along with Crs Knight and Townley who’ve made telling statements themselves, hold no understanding of cultural value. Not their fault, I hasten to add. That’s their lived experience and they rely on what Management provides them.

    The oft-said reason for that project is that it’s primarily about council offices isn’t, I feel, what’s at the bottom of it. The civic spaces within it were given with selected data but data with a long history. In brief, this harks back to the colonial days when the centrepiece of any small town was its police station, law court, and administrative premises. It was then “looked up to”. Such a viewpoint is no longer as strong as it was, as people these days are more self-activating and globally effective. It certainly doesn’t reflect the cosmpolitan attitude of the advanced cultural city.

    Then things changed, from that quaint colonial mindset, at a backward look into the haze, about forty years ago. This is when business management changed. No longer the dictatorial overlord, management began to explore ways of enriching the work experience for those employed. One strong example was when a well known firm introduced mufty days, then went on to absolve set working hours. Workers could turn up when they wanted, work at their own will and choice. The reasoning behind it was this would lead to increased productivity.

    This then moved a step further. Business was enacted as ever by personal contact, through arranged meetings, so why not build your premises in such a way to help augment this personal contact? Communal business spaces were born, if you could call them that, where businesspeople would gather, for a coffee or a table-meeting, in a place designed to raise the odds of a chance contact from which business could develop. You’d bump into someone and get talking.

    So instead of being sequestered in an office, business was now an organic and intermingled communal activity. Spend a minute thinking about it and the difference from the old to the then new could not be more stark. Buildings were constructed all over the country reflecting this change. (It’s as stark as the once-normal lifestyle of the man being the breadwinner and the woman tending the home, and followed not long after those changes came about.)

    The two strains then met, whereupon communal public spaces were built upon that principle: chance public engagement, enriched public interaction and inclusion. This forms today the basis for the planning of the entire modern city (something which is decades ahead of Coffs’ plans) in lands other than ours.

    Therein is the reasoning and goodwill intention of the so-called CCS civic spaces. It is this principle of public engagement, interaction and therefore personal enrichment that provides inspiration for the four councillors to wish to provide it for the benefit of the community they serve.

    It comes undone in the selling of it. For therein is the lack of lived cultural experience under the spotlight.

    Without wanting to yet again attack the project, two things stick out. The first is that the project’s implementation, if nothing else, proves the project, the building, to be ineffective. Simple as that. People can see what it is. If the project were as good as they said it would be, the public couldn’t wait for it to be built. So it’s come a cropper somewhere. That’s undeniable.

    The second thing is also undeniable. If you want cultural development, the following link takes you to a project of much clearer cultural vision:

    I urge anyone who supports the so-called CCS to read that, or at least flick through it.

    There it is, in facts. An arts and cultural centre, for $50million, for which grant money awaits. The document in that link shows a clear concept, within which — get this — the civic spaces for which the so-called CCS relies upon are included in that better alternative but do not receive a mention, being insignificant to the actual cultural facilities provided.

    I often wonder how Sally Townley would feel if she were given the document in the link rather than the one she was given. She is unbending in her support for the current plan, because, she has been persuaded, for three times, or four or six of the cost, of the cultural and communal benefits of what she’s been given, then her heart must surely break to see it done so much better, and would be over the moon for that alternative project to be built here. If only she would look at it, and say.

    I hasten also to add that the alternative in the link is just one example, and a much greater vision for this region could be, and should be, built. One that takes advantage of the beaches and ocean for which Coffs Harbour is known. Madness not to.

    The notion that some in council are not ill-intentioned gets a bit of a hit when John Rafferty’s office atop the C.ex comes to mind. It’s very stately indeed, yet not overstated. It evokes a feeling of being on top of the town. One of the first things that would have happened back at their start is Steve McGrath and Denise Knight were invited into it. It’s entirely understandable that these two would yearn for such a feeling for themselves.

    I really do think it’s important to try to see what inspires the four councillors and CHCC Management, though, when in their better intentions they wish to provide those civic spaces. It is for them about public interaction and engagement. As said, these are the principles that drive modern city planning: getting people out of high density (the stage towards which Coffs is struggling to start) that are proven to cause social harm and out into public spaces where people can engage and interact, and cycle and walk.

    Of course there’s more to it, all of it ripped open and exposed on these pages. But that’s the inherent principle upon which the civic component of the CCS-idea is based. It is, to me, so impoverished, so depressingly sad, that such a diminished pastiche of what can be done for much less has so gripped them. I prefer to put it down to small town thinking and lack of lived experience, and busy workloads for part-time councillors overloaded as it is.

    Thanks again, Tom, for your provision of history. I don’t think any councillor can be persuaded or enlightened by what also could be done, so as to change their minds. Rather, I think a couple of councillors once against the project are now moving for it, seeing themselves, perhaps, in one of those offices above, though would never publicly say. It just has to be stopped by other means, it can be stopped, and our hopes live strongly now in a new mayor with the strength and vision to do so, leading a new council of the same qualities.

    I urge everyone to please look through that link — it can go full screen and you can flip through it — to see what you are missing out on, especially those who support the cultural facilities and civic spaces in the CCS-idea. It is a project underway, not far behind in its implementation, and gives a fact-based actual alternative upon which to base your arguments and decisions.

    1. In for a penny, in for a pound. There was a reason for submitting that unsolicited, and probably unwanted, broadbrush and uniquely Australian occurrence above, which I neglected to include. In saying that it’s important to understand the reasoning behind the four councillors’ and CHCC Management’s belief in the civic spaces, it goes like this:

      Three options forward for Coffs. One, the silly CCS is built. Two, a hodge podge mashed potato of cultural and civic facilities is trundled into being by the new council (the likeliest scenario) which continues on the path of sub-mediocrity and is the ‘standard’ for a regional council, and is celebrated for being phenomenally more than that. Three, a world-class civic and cultural precinct is envisioned and constructed in stages, taking advantage of the sea and beach views, drawn together from the currently disparate human value that already enriches the community, yet is unheralded and inhibited until that precinct harnesses it, and is mentioned alongside Russell Crowe’s pristine vision whenever his studio is mentioned in a broadcast anywhere in the world (what should happen).

      In each of those three occasions the same terminologies and PR and phrasings and documentary ‘evidence’ will be used. Exactly the same. Councillors will get the same stuff in their briefings and papers, provided from consultants through Management. You will get the same quotations of the principles and benefits in media quotes. Three vastly different possibilities, all with the same verbiage. These are the terminologies that are the fashion of the day, or decade, rather. (Good, however, somewhat, that the word “culture” has at least entered the local government lexicon.)

      So in knowing that the same terminologies and principles that have gone into the silly CCS would go into a world-class precinct, we can look beyond those and determine more clearly what is really going on, what is really being presented. The current use of terminologies and principles in public ‘explanations’ by Council has persuaded some, because these are very high-sounding and effective principles indeed.

      From outside of council, however, the poverty of application of those principles and the hijacking of terminologies is obvious to most, as has occurred, but where it gets important is of particular value when considering what the new council sets about doing. New councillors will have these same terminologies and principles flooding again the documents they are given. We’ll get them again in the public PR. Being alert to their inherent power, looking beyond their inclusion in what is presented, gives us a clearer picture of whether those new proposals are any good or not, and how well those have been applied, or not.

    2. What a brilliant report. I live in Sydney but visit often. I think you should stand for council. Immediately.

      1. Thank you, Joyce. I should not compete with Joe Biden as the worlds oldest relic in politics!

  5. Very well said and so true.most of the citizens of our town do not want this building and advised this but were overruled by the principal person.thank you

  6. The replies above, taken as a small sample of community views, reflect an important fact. There is capability within our community to hold our councils to account. Tom’s excellent history needs to be read by as wide an audience as possible, and the decision to share it to Facebook is applauded. Even if the process of creating the CCS was not initially corrupt, it has become so over time. Human nature has intervened to turn an anticipated community asset into one person’s vision for a personal monument. We must be diligent in order to prevent this from happening again. The first step is to elect the proper people.

  7. A great article that goes to the nub of public unease in this council.

    This is something most neutral and other people acknowledge as now being fact. Namely the vast majority of residents are now well and truly over this council, some notable Councillors excepted of course.

    However Tom I do think you may have got one thing wrong, in part at least. I’m pretty sure it was $200k that was paid by Council for City Hill. Although whether it all went to the Federal Government is something I’m not 100% certain about.

    CCO Editor: Our understanding is that the sum paid was $200k too RB.

    Just not sure, like you, if it was all to the Federal Government, which we suspect, or not. Nevertheless even back when it was paid it was a ‘peppercorn’ amount and in today’s dollars and property market it would be about 1/8th of a peppercorn at best.

  8. If a single other person is interested in this, that person would find it far more than that. I can’t think of a better area to leave it on record than underneath Tom’s heartfelt writing.

    It’s not for the faint-hearted. But where I found it interesting is in its relevence to Australian country towns, and within that specifically Coffs Harbour, being the last ‘civilised’ country to acknowledge and develop, harness and celebrate, cultural identity. (Including First Nation cultural acknowledgment and identity.)

    This is a doctoral thesis written by James M. Richmond, in 1969, submitted for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy in the Australian National University. Like I say … not for the faint-hearted.

    Its fascination is compounded by it being written at that time. The brief history of the north coast region is that tourism took over as a formative force in the sixties. Therefore, this thesis is written in the period of quietness, if that’s a way to imagine it, before tourism heavily impacted regional NSW, and I think is better for not being affected by it.

    The thesis focuses on three regional towns, however, it’s included here on record for the astounding wealth of knowledge it covers in the introductory sections concerning NSW and Victoria, the predominantly settled areas of the country. The specifics I found of particular interest were the way country towns were considered as places that existed “to work so that metropolises (Sydney, Melbourne especially) could play”, that is, country towns fed the purposes of the cities; that this was caused by a lack of manufacturing business in regional areas and therefore were not self-reliant; that this was observed and written about by social commenters of the day in both the USA and England; that townsfolk of the day complained heavily about infrastructure spending being city-centric; that much of the way a “country town” was perceived came actually from literature (‘The Bulletin’ and Henry Lawson as prime examples) and not from an inherent value — the “country town” then, the formative years of 1861-1891, according to this thesis, wasn’t actually regarded as that!

    In a nutshell, then, as I’ve mentioned previously, Australia being a last outpost and follower of cultural development, which only found its own value very recently, and then only in a sprinkling of suburbs within two major cities, meant that regional areas had no cultural development at all. Coffs Harbour being right in there: even when tourism took over, tourists and new residents came for the sea and beaches, not for any cultural attraction, which didn’t and still doesn’t effectively exist, despite those who bark otherwise.

    This absence of real cultural understanding is nowhere better shown than in the council of this term. In 2021 ! Astounding, but for the history of why. This man’s thesis of 1969 provides incredible information that forms part of the lengthy historical reasons why Coffs Harbour has the silly CCS on the agenda today. It’s an honour to give this study some more life. A remarkable and unique work, that has certainly thrown extremely rare light onto the growth of regional towns and which is immensely informative.

    It opens as a PDF, and apologies to that possible lone reader for not being able to place it otherwise than having to copy and paste that long link into a browser.

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