Shire in flux after hot debate

Warren HatelyAugusta Margaret River Times

The Shire’s winter diversion project is in disarray, more than $150,000 in funding could be lost, major failures in consultation were outed, and minority councillors openly criticised the voting majority at Wednesday night’s council meeting.

In a fiery debate, elected members Ian Earl, Pauline McLeod and Peter Lane accused Shire president Pam Townshend and other councillors in the majority of collusion after a plan to investigate a completely different track option was raised 15 minutes before the meeting’s start.

A decision to hold more council meetings outside the Shire of Augusta-Margaret River’s $12 million headquarters saw a big contingent of Margaret River regulars cram into Cowaramup’s Duggan Pavilion on Wednesday to witness what former Shire president Cr Earl called an “ambush”.

The minority’s unhappiness was echoed by 20-or-so Friends of the Cape-to-Cape Track who jeered members after Cr Townshend tabled a motion to halt any further decision on the unfinished connector track, stalled for more than 18 months after admitted Shire errors in environmental and Aboriginal heritage consultation.

Instead, the approved alternative would convene an urgent working party to look at other route options using firebreaks and private properties, with four land owners willing to consider formal access for Cape-to-Cape Track walkers stymied by winter river levels (see Page 4).

Cr Earl led the furious chorus as majority members Townshend, Naomi Godden, Mike Smart and Julia Meldrum used their numbers to force the pause, despite warnings from the Friends significant grant funding already allocated to the almost-finished track could be lost.

Cr Earl described the motion as “a complete and utter crock of horse manure”.

“It’s an ambush,” he said. “It is poor process. These are the sorts of things that bring councils down. It is a disgrace that we have come to this.”

Cr Earl said it had been “a long and torturous process over the past 18 months”, and Cr Townshend’s move showed “a complete lack of integrity”. Cr Lane also called out Cr Townshend’s group for lodging their motion right before meeting, despite three of them reading speeches from typed notes.

“This motion was agreed before the debate and this was a foredrawn conclusion,” he said.

Chief executive Gary Evershed said the arrangement could be a breach of procedures.

Anger was further stirred when Cr Smart read short sections from a confidential Aboriginal heritage report to argue local Noongars and the South West Boojarah working party approved the track because they were “backed up against the wall”.

Cr Smart’s claims were bolstered by the Shire president, as well as Cr Godden, who revealed her own discussions with Wadandi elders showed Aboriginals felt they had no option but to approve the existing track — despite first being against the alignment — to stave off plans for a costly boardwalk and a $400,000 suspension bridge over the Margaret River.

“Elders tell me that if traditional owners had been consulted at the beginning of the project, if due process had been followed, they would have advised the Shire to find another track away from the riparian zone,” she said.

Minority councillors said they were offended at suggestions they weren’t supporting Noongars, pointing to the Shire-commissioned report by anthropologist Brad Goode.

“It clearly, clearly says that the Aboriginal people will support the track going through, and to apply for Section 18 (clearance), and its upon that we’ve based out decision,” Cr McLeod said.

The last-minute switch was “insane”, she said, noting she was told before the meeting the alternative would pass.

Cr Earl said reading from the confidential report was an insult to the Wadandi, and Cr Lane said he was offended by implications he and others weren’t protecting the river.

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