Mayor says to State Government; “Give me good reasons in writing to stop Cultural-Civic Centre”

The NSW opposition has called on the Local Government Minister to explain why she has threatened to change laws to pause a $76.5 million community civic space from being built in Coffs Harbour.

By Claudia JamborABC Coffs Coast

Key points:

  • Mayor Denise Knight says she’ll consider halting the precinct if the NSW Minister writes to the council with a legitimate reason
  • The minister, Shelley Hancock, had previously said she wouldn’t intervene after an investigation found the project adhered to processes
  • Some councillors have interpreted Ms Hancock’s comments as political interference
State Local Government Minister, Shelly Hancock, has called for Coffs Harbour to pause its plans for a new civic space during the pandemic

Local Government Minister Shelley Hancock issued the warning during a commercial radio interview yesterday when she backed a call from Coffs Harbour MP Gurmesh Singh to halt progress on the cultural hub on the state’s mid-north coast due to the downturn sparked by COVID-19.

She told Ray Hadley that it was “foolish and rash” for the council to vote to progress the Cultural and Civic Space during the coronavirus pandemic.

“My view is [to] pause it, otherwise I’m going to pursue some legislative changes about this,” Ms Hancock said.

“This is a really bad message to send to a community that is totally divided on this.

“It’s not necessary at this stage when every council, state, and [the] Federal Government are trying to direct hard earned resources … toward COVID-19.”

A woman sits in a chair
Shelley Hancock has warned she’ll consider changing laws to the cultural precinct from progressing.(ABC News)

Ms Hancock said she was compelled to intervene after Coffs Harbour Mayor Denise Knight criticised Mr Singh’s letter to councillors that urged them to support a motion at last week’s meeting to pause the project until after the COVID-19 crisis.

The motion was defeated by the mayor’s casting vote which broke a stalemate between councillors tied four in favour, four against.

The Mayor of Coffs Harbour with councillors.
Mayor Denise Knight (centre) and three other councillors are in favour of building the Cultural and Civic Space.(ABC Coffs Coast: Claudia Jambor)

A new library, museum, and art gallery are among the facilities housed in the cultural precinct, but the inclusion of council chambers is a major point of contention dividing the community and its councillors.

The council planned to fund the construction by selling four of its buildings, including its existing offices, and applying for a loan from the State Government’s financial authority, TCorp.

But Ms Hancock said legislative amendments made due to COVID-19 prohibit loans for works on council offices.

She said that means the Coffs Harbour City Council would not be able to borrow money to build the Cultural and Civic Space for the foreseeable future.

“In that context, I’ve asked [the council], in agreement with Gurmesh Singh, that we pause the project until we come through COVID,” she said.

She warned further law changes were possible to prevent the council from borrowing the money for the cultural hub.

community members against Coffs Harbour Cultural and Civic Space proposal.
Concerned locals have protested against the Cultural and Civic Space at local council meetings.(ABC Coffs Coast: Claudia Jambor)

No formal correspondence received

A council spokeswoman has told the ABC it has not received any formal correspondence from the minister, and the council maintains it is in a strong financial position to proceed.

Ms Hancock said she would not weigh in on the project after the council’s plans were investigated in October, off the back of a petition tabled in parliament of more than 15,000 signatures opposing the build.

The shadow minister for local government, Greg Warren, said Ms Hancock’s backflip was concerning given her office found the council had not breached its statutory obligations.

“What her motivation is she will have to explain that herself,” Mr Warren said.

“But if she drafts any kind of legislative changes we will have to review that and consider a position.”

Cultural precinct proposed for Coffs Harbour, NSW.
The Coffs Harbour City Council’s proposed Cultural and Civic Space has divided the community.(Supplied)

The mayor said she had been left confused by the mixed messages from the State Government, particularly given the announcement by Planning Minister Rob Stokes to fast-track major building projects.

“They are saying on one hand ‘build infrastructure, get locals jobs’, then they’re telling us ‘don’t provide it’,” Cr Knight said.

“Give me something in writing to tell me we can’t do this, give me a really good reason, and we will re-assess it.”

Coffs Harbour City Councillor Sally Townley is one of the four councillors who have consistently voted in support of the Cultural and Civic Space.

She said Ms Hancock’s comments amounted to political interference in council processes.

“There seems to be this sentiment that if you don’t say nice things to and about the member, if you dare to disagree with them, then you will be punished and the Government will withhold money,” Cr Townley said.

Construction of the Cultural and Civic Space is expected to start later this year with a completion date set for 2022.


First published at The ABC – Tusday 28 April 2020. See;

16 thoughts on “Mayor says to State Government; “Give me good reasons in writing to stop Cultural-Civic Centre”

  1. The Minister answers to our Mayor?

    Should be the other way round. Mayor Knight should provide in writing:
    a) that the project represents the will of the majority of our community;
    b) intricate details that the development’s jobs will go to the locals, which jobs and when; and
    c) detailed fact-based fiscal evidence that the decision to continue is not reckless, including global effects filtering into the community.

  2. Another lot of selective interpretation of various things, by both the Mayor and, sadly disappointingly, by Cr Sally Townley.

    I have much more I can say on this later

  3. Greg Warren cannot mention backflip with a straight face surely, initially he was against this building .

    1. The adversarial nature of our pathetic political system requires Greg Warren to criticise anything which the government does, regardless of its level of merit. The shadow minister is simply playing politics, using issues which may mean little to him, but which are of critical importance to us. He will tend to sway whichever way the wind blows strongest, if that direction is in his favour.

  4. Cr Townley, why do you think we have a local membet of parliament and a Ministet for Local Government. I believe they are much further up the pecking order than a mere councilor and are there to keep you lot honest. Maybe you are just jealous because Gurmesh beat you in the state election THANK GOD.

    1. I voted for Sally at the last council election. I did some research before doing so. Here’s some of what her website said about her, prior to her tilt at state politics:

      “Recognised by many as being the voice for accountability on Council, she is not afraid to ask the hard questions and keep asking them. She is running as an Independent for Coffs Harbour to give voters a powerful option which will represent the community and not vested political or commercial interests. If you are tired of the community of Coffs Harbour being under-valued, vote for Sally. Its time for a change!”

      I made a serious mistake by expecting that someone with sufficient academic intelligence to earn a PhD, might also be blessed with common sense. More fool me.

      I emailed Sally months ago, along with all of the other councillors, to register my objection to the Denise Knight Memorial Civic Centre. She didn’t reply. In fact, the only one who did was Michael Adendorff, who provided a somewhat supercilious response, which did nothing to calm my fears.

      I emailed Sally a second time, some weeks ago, and she responded with an email, and with a telephone call, during which she did not seem to be able to understand my point, that the project should be stopped because the community at large did not want new council offices, with attached cultural spaces, built in Gordon St.

      I again emailed all councillors recently, suggesting that a straw poll might be conducted via email. At this point I have had no response from any of the councillors to my suggestion.

      I believe that Sally has decided that, because council can afford to build it (her words, not mine), it should be built. Having made up her mind, she appears to lack the mental and emotional flexibility to change it. She appears unable to comprehend some simple facts:

      1. The community doesn’t want what Knight wants.
      2. The whole process, from its inception, has been conducted in a manner unacceptable to the community.
      3. The behaviour of Knight and her cohort is regarded by most of the community as unacceptable.
      4. Resistance to the project will not go away because Sally thinks everything is OK.

      There is clearly miscommunication occurring between Sally and the community which she claims to serve. Perhaps she should open her ears as well as her mind, and really listen to what it is that the community is saying.

      Then she might be able to live up to her claim to “give voters a powerful option which will represent the community and not vested political or commercial interests.”

      To borrow from her text: “If you are tired of the community of Coffs Harbour being under-valued, PLEASE DO NOT vote for Sally AGAIN. Its time for a change!”

  5. In my opinion, a psychologist might find Knight’s behaviour, in response to the Minister’s intervention, suitable for use as an exemplar, an excellent case study. The mayor has effectively said to all and sundry, “Prove to me that I am wrong. Convince me that the project should not go ahead, otherwise I will defy any and all attempts to block my path. You can not, and will not, convince me, since I know that I am right.”

    I believe that Knight, although she might never admit it, even to herself, knows that the objections raised so vocally and consistently by the community are not only valid, but are an essential part of the democratic process.

    How then, have we arrived at this impasse? Let us make one assumption about Knight’s actions, on which to base some relevant theory.

    I ask you to accept that, at the beginning of this pathetic drama, Denise Knight may have believed that her plan, or a plan suggested to her by someone else and subsequently adopted by Knight as her own, would actually benefit the community. Having committed to the plan she then pursued it with remarkable energy and determination. She became a zealot, and she was then dismayed by the strength of public opposition.

    By this stage, however, she had so committed herself personally to the plan, that she was unable, as much as unwilling, to back down from her stated position. Fanaticism affects people in that way. It is conceivable that part of her knew that she was wrong to push ahead, against the wishes of the community, and through a process which has since been shown to be morally, and perhaps legally, corrupt. Sadly, it may be part of her personality that, once committed, and perhaps consistently influenced by vested interests, she has been unable to resile from her position.

    From this point on, the only way was down the path of intransigence, denial, retaliation, and abuse of power. I believe it likely that Knight has become so addicted to the power of her position, and now, to the feelings attached to martyrdom, that she is presently beyond rational thinking. The “fight or flight”
    response has taken over, and to run away presents no bearable option. She prefers to posture, threaten, and insult as an alternative to risking the humiliation of a backdown. Sadly for her, it is likely that such a backdown, and the humiliation which will accompany it, is almost inevitable.

    I suggest that her present reluctance to accept criticism, is not in response to criticism of her plan, as much as a response to the threat, posed by critics, to her position of power. Power such as she currently wields, due to the undemocratic skewing of the council, is absolute. It is also exceptionally addictive.

    It has been said countless times that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

    The Minister needs to respond to Knight’s challenge, not verbally, but by establishing a formal inquiry into the entire sad saga of Denise Knight’s fall from grace.

    1. Peter Hartcher wrote a piece in the SMH in the period when the nation was sick to the stomach of John Howard, who’d long ago promised he’d stay only as long as the Party wanted him, about how power rewires the synapses of the brain. You’d have to carry him out in a box, was the general assessment.

      Denise Knight is in a very interesting position. Anyone used to negotiation would know that a position=based standpoint leads to trouble – as different from a reason-based standpoint. Added to what you say, I feel she sees things in simplistic terms. Big Investment Big Projects equals jobs and stimulus, enough said. Any depth to that for her seems to go only so far as: okay, so it would likely be built by external labour, no problem, those people will buy coffee and lunch, rent somewhere, and we’ll reap the rewards. It’s similar thinking to how media publish kneejerk catchphrases swallowed whole. “Jobs and stimulus/growth” is good, simple as that. Better thinkers look deeper. Brillaint minds are forensic.

      There is one possibility Denise Knight may change her mind. The last thing she would want is to become a pariah, and she’s well on the path towards that. This week is a watershed week for her. Further, an attitude that would have the Minister answer to her is a trigger for more national media: as you say, they smell a ‘zealot’. She could very well soon find her attitude all over current affairs programs being held over as example of how not to handle a crisis. “No one knows more about pandemics than me” is also a trigger call to the Australian media who don’t buy into Trumpism in our national politics and any journo at any time could bite.

      As it is, she’s bringing opprobrium onto the name of Coffs.

      We’ll see. Her saviour is the very community she’s ignomiously rejected. If she stops, realises this project is not a warm and fuzzy, but full of sharp knives, she can say so, receive the benefit of community gratefulness for good common sense, and go forward with both her political career and community service. She won’t come out entirely unscathed, but it is by far the best option for her personally and politically.

      1. Pedestal Fan, it is refreshing, and even invigorating, to read such an informed, coherent and clinically expressed view. I believe that your summation would do credit to Peter Hartcher himself. I am convinced of the existence of neural plasticity, and I credit this phenomenon with the creation of zealots from individuals who may have surfaced, initially, as simply committed proponents of a cause.

        I agree entirely with you that Denise’s career is poised on a knife’s edge at present. She has undoubtedly shot herself in the foot, with her attack on Gurmesh Singh, her apology not withstanding. Knight’s demands that the Minister should respond to her, and to her satisfaction, are further example of the mayor’s loss of touch with reality. Perhaps she sees herself as a “David” to Shelley’s “Goliath”.

        It is true that, if word of her behaviour reaches the major press at a time when news is a little thin on the ground, Denise will soon find that she has bitten off much more than she can chew. They will annihilate her. Such exposure would surely destroy any hope of redemption which Denise might anticipate, were she to backflip.

        I don’t know if the community which she has so comprehensively abused, will ever forgive her sins.

        1. Cheers.

          The only thing I’d add to that is that while the word ‘backflip’ well describes a change of mind precipitating a stop to the development, if she’s smart – and it doesn’t take much – she need not frame her statement to the Coffs Coast public as that.

          She is quite within her rights to simply own up, be pleasantly benefitted from personal advice and from the public concern for whom she serves, and her good conscience, and say she’s shelving the project WITH extremely valuable achievements. These achievements hold the community in excellent stead – achievements in vision, that we need a cultural centre, achievements in experience gained in taking the big hard steps towards getting one into the community, experience in process, and experience in implementation. She could sum it up by saying she and all of those at Council have worked hard and laid an invaluable foundation for a better one coming to fruition.

          That’s not a backdown, and it’s true enough, and while it won’t appease everyone it carries with it good and inspiring portent for the future.

          Personally, if she’s booted out and can’t see the better one through to lights on and doors open, her legacy will, I feel, be kindly remembered for doing the above.

          It can be done. She can stop the project, keep the valuable parts of this whole process, and use them positively for a better proposition. If she’s smart, she can actually come out in front.

          But continuing the path she’s on? Even if her attitude evades wider condemnation and ridicule, even if it’s built and the doors open, every brick and every light socket will be scrutinised and criticised by locals and she’s guaranteed, in the best case scenario, to be condemned for a couple of decades at least. That’s being kind. And every condemnation will be framed as having chosen to do the project while the entire world, get that: the entire world, was in crisis.

          I can only repeat she does have a positive option available, and all is not lost if she chooses it. Far from it.

  6. So do-or-die Denise has decided to rattle the Minister’s cage? I’ll bet the Minister’s shaking in her boots.

    I’m not sure who’s advising the mayor, but if she thinks taking this petulant ‘David and Goliath’ stance and threatening to ignore ministerial directives is going to further her cause or win community admiration, she is totally mistaken.

    By choosing to poke the tiger, she continues to be the laughing stock of this town, while at the same time doing untold damage to Coffs Harbour’s reputation.

    Time to retire Denise.

  7. I think Sally Townly sadly, has entered some twilight zone, time for a long holiday.

  8. Our mayor displays all the traits of a narcissist. Similar to Trump; “Often wrong, never in doubt”. Surprised she has not dispensed cures for COVID19 such as ingesting bleach!!

  9. I wish to congratulate you Julian on your very articulate and spot on diagnosis of the Mayor’s attitude and her actions regarding her refusal to pause the building of the Cultural and Civic Space!!!

    Our one hope is that the Local Government Minister, Shelley Hancock stands by her word, and doesn’t let Denise Knight get away with this ridiculous plan of hers which will cost ratepayers, not only the $75 million but, many millions more by the time it’s finished. 😡😡😡😡😡

    1. Many thanks, Ann. I think that 40cmPedestalFan has also provided an excellent perspective on Knight’s motivation.
      If we maintain the pressure on the state government, and support Gurmesh (my god, I’ve done it again – praised a Nationals MP!), the pressure which they exert, in turn, upon Denise and Her Band, will surely cause the cracks, which have started to appear, to widen further.

  10. I have thoroughly enjoyed the above comments, particularly those of Julian and Pedestral Fan. Explains a lot actually. Power does seem to go to some people’s heads. Big fish in little ponds syndrome is local politics.

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