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Open Letter to Indigo Residents

From Mayor Cr Jenny O’Connor and CEO Gerry Smith

We have taken the unusual step of preparing this Open Letter to address a number of misconceptions circulating in the community about Council’s intentions and actions around the Beechworth Railway Station precinct and Goods Shed.

Old Beechworth Railway Station and Goods Shed

Council wants to enhance the railway precinct area, which includes the Railway Station building, the old Goods Shed and the Crown land on either side of the Murray to Mountains Rail Trail as far as Mellish Street. Our purpose is to improve the use of this area  to boost community and economic development for Beechworth and Indigo Shire more broadly.
As a first step, Council sought Expressions of Interest (EOI)  for interested applicants via public advertising.  After a formal assessment of the two applications received the submission by the Australian Centre for Rural Entrepreneurship (ACRE) was endorsed by Council at its September meeting as the ‘preferred’ applicant. ACRE is a social enterprise locally-run group and is the same group that recently became involved in the old Beechworth Gaol for a social enterprise development.

The facts are:

  • The EOI contains ideas for the precinct, but no formal plans have yet been submitted to Council.
  • In endorsing ACRE as the preferred EOI applicant, Council officers are in contact with ACRE to refine its proposal and to work up occupancy arrangements via a lease that would be brought back to Council for further consideration.  This is our normal practice and it is needed to comply with legal requirements around Council leasing land.
  • Any lease will contain details of the facilities to be estab- lished on the site, which could include space for youth entrepreneurship programs, a terrain park and pump track on the northern end of the zone near the Goods Shed and old Railway Station, a nature-based adventure playground, an arts creative space, commercial café or coffee shop offering.
  • Once firmed up, the details will be made available for community feedback and residents along the precinct will be consulted before Council makes any final decisions. We are also meeting with concerned residents as requested on December 14.
  • Council does not intend to rezone any of this precinct and any development and use of the precinct must comply with the Indigo Planning Scheme. This extends to addressing any impacts on residents such as noise, amenity, traffic, etc
  • These details are on the public record in the minutes of the Council’s September and November 2016 meetings. Council and its officers are working up further details for community consultation and the earliest any report is expected to come before Council would be February or March 2017.

Council Staff Conflict of Interest

There is also an ongoing misconception being conveyed that a Council senior staff member, Mr Clayton Neil, who was employed as Council’s Manager of Tourism and Community Services, has a conflict of interest because he is employed by Council while a partner in ACRE in both the Railway Precinct project and the community purchase of the Old Beechworth Gaol.   
Mr Neil has declared his interests in these projects from the outset and any potential for conflicts have been carefully managed to ensure there was no actual Conflict of Interest arising.  
Mr Neil has had no involvement in assessing applications or advising Council or making decisions on anything to do with the Railway Precinct or Old Beechworth Gaol.  Council and Mr Neil’s actions fully comply with legislation and relevant Codes of Conduct.  
Further, Mr Neil recently stepped aside from his Council tourism manager responsibilities to ensure that his role in the ACRE Old Gaol development did not conflict. Council is recruiting a new Tourism Manager at exactly the same level and time fraction.
Mr Neil’s ongoing role with Council - managing Libraries and Home and Community Care - is completely separate from any process associated with the Old Gaol or Railway Precinct.  This action is a completely appropriate step for a small rural shire Council to take where staff and community activities overlap.

In Summary

Council’s governance procedures in managing these activities is appropriate. However, as Indigo Shire has a new Council with new Councillors, we will get an independent probity auditor to review the Railway Precinct EOI process and the way that Council has managed the perceived conflict of interest, and to provide an independent assessment to the Council. This review will be conducted in the coming months and after consideration by Council, will be made public.
These issues have raised concerns in the community and Council is aware of those concerns. We operate in accordance with our governing laws and codes of conduct - and Council continues to ensure appropriate development across the Shire is consistent with protecting community interest.

Cr Jenny O'Connor          Gerry Smith

Mayor                           Chief Executive Officer

13 December 2016