FIVE Port Macquarie-Hastings councillors agree that a face-to-face meeting with the Minister for Local Government is now a matter of priority in the interest of fairness and balance.
It comes after concerns were raised last week by mayor Peta Pinson on council's decision-making over the orbital road project.
Mayor Peta Pinson met with Minister Shelley Hancock on July 31 to discuss concerns about the councillors' decision to leave council's "most viable" route on the table, with several other options, during the development of an orbital road strategic business case, despite strong opposition from affected residents.
A rescission motion to have the "most viable" option removed was lost in July.
The mayor is supporting the alliance of community action groups who have launched a petition calling on the state government to initiate a public inquiry into Port Macquarie-Hastings Council and the entire proposed orbital road project.
The meeting was arranged and facilitated through the office of Port Macquarie MP Leslie Williams.
The minister has now requested advice from the Office of Local Government on the matter.
Deputy mayor Lisa Intemann has been staunchly vocal in supporting the June decision to proceed to the development of a strategic business case for all orbital road options. This will include value management workshops for an east-west link (Ocean Drive to Oxley Highway) and a north-south link (Oxley Highway to Boundary Street) orbital road, and the option for a major Lake Road upgrade.
The step to a strategic business case will also include ranking options for best value and will seek engagement with relevant agencies.
Councillors agreed the airport access road will be separated from orbital road project investigations and made a stand alone priority.
"It is very irregular for a mayor - who is statutory leader and spokesperson of the organisation - to complain publicly about their council without first raising the matters with councillors and council internally," Cr Intemann said.
"On request of other councillors I wrote to local member Leslie Williams and the minister, requesting the minister visit here or receive a delegation at her office. The minister's office advised last Friday that a visit will be arranged "in coming months", and I have replied asking for an earlier opportunity to know and respond to any complaints or any call for an inquiry - as natural justice requires."
The Port News contacted all councillors, including the mayor, for a response to the call for an inquiry on the orbital road project. Councillors Geoff Hawkins, Rob Turner, Justin Levido and Peter Alley replied and supported Cr Intemann's urgency to prioritise a balanced discussion, agreeing an inquiry is not warranted. Crs Mike Cusato, Lee Dixon and Sharon Griffiths did not respond.
"Council has followed - in a clear, transparent manner - an appropriately robust process. It's my view that there are absolutely no grounds for an inquiry," Cr Hawkins said.
"I believe it is essential that the minister inform herself of the facts around this matter; and this can only be achieved by hearing both sides of the argument."
Cr Turner said the minister must be aware of council's position and "the full details of the rigorous process recently commenced to determine future plans for our road network".
A delegation of councillors should be able to meet the Minister, face to face, in Sydney within a week.Cr Justin Levido
Cr Levido questioned the motivation for the inquiry.
"The mayor was unilaterally able to achieve a face to face, private meeting with the NSW Local Government Minister within a week and without any consultation with the councillor body, to take issue with the councillor body," he said.
"Natural justice dictates that the councillor body be afforded the same courtesy rather than being advised that a meeting in Port Macquarie (in the presence of our state member) some months down the track will likely occur. A delegation of councillors should be able to meet the minister, face to face, in Sydney within a week."
Cr Alley said council is following a process to look at all possible route options to determine if a possible road may be cost justified.
"I would have thought that the NSW Government would have better things to do with their resources than to have an inquiry into a council doing some long term traffic planning," Cr Alley said.
"The minister met with the mayor within a couple of weeks of the request being lodged. I would have thought that the councillors could expect the same courtesy."
I believe that an inquiry will determine why council is moving in this direction and it will determine if the best use of ratepayer money is to include a route that is not feasible into a future strategic business case.Mayor Peta Pinson
Working together, or not
Mayor Peta Pinson stands by her move to meet with the minister.
"Affected residents have made it clear that they are not in support of a route which destroys homes, a school and its future plans, a nursing home with dementia care expansion, a high care disability centre, wetlands, core koala habitat and is at the cost of $1 billion dollars in today's money," Cr Pinson said.
"Council is not supported through the state and federal members and does not have the funds to undertake any future high level feasibility study into a route that is unsupported.
"I believe that an inquiry will determine why council is moving in this direction and it will determine if the best use of ratepayer money is to include a route that is not feasible into a future strategic business case."
She does not believe all councillors took the opportunity to fully engage with the community and key stakeholders on the orbital road project.
"I believe that the decision to move forward with the orbital investigation zone was already decided," Cr Pinson said.
Councillors need to listen to everyone in the community, the loud voices, the soft voices, the emotional voices, the angry voices and the supportive voices, and then give weight as they see fit to best serve the entire communityCr Peter Alley
While Model Code of Meeting Practice dictates that debating is prohibited from pre-council meetings, there are extensive opportunities, including portfolio meetings, for councillors to gather facts and ask questions on a project or issue so they can contribute to informed debate in the council chamber.
Cr Pinson is highly critical of the portfolio program saying it is a failure and achieves very little. She withdrew her participation in the program in October 2018.
Cr Hawkins said the portfolio system supports and encourages a co-operative, collegiate working environment between councillors.
"It does this whilst simultaneously encouraging rigorous debate over a very broad spectrum of issues, many of which are complex and highly technical. Over time, it also has contributed towards an open, trusting, professional and respectful attitude amongst councillors who have actively embraced the concept," he said.
Cr Turner agreed the meetings were a valuable opportunity to make more informed decisions.
"Of course, the more that an individual councillor puts in, the more they (and everyone else) will benefit."
The one point they do all agree on is the voice of the community is critically important in the complex process of decision-making.
"Councillors need to listen to everyone in the community, the loud voices, the soft voices, the emotional voices, the angry voices and the supportive voices, and then give weight as they see fit to best serve the entire community," Cr Alley said.
Getting on with it
Cr Intemann reinforced there is a long way to go before any "final decision" in the orbital road project investigation is made.
"This is a challenging long-term planning and construction process but very necessary to tackle despite the problems it faces," Cr Intemann added.
"The recent orbital engagement received numerous submissions and suggested alternatives.
"All these will now be considered through a strategic business case, and assessed not just for engineering but a swathe of other issues like environmental and social impacts which aren't part of concept plans. There will be extensive community consultation before any final decision."
Cr Intemann said it must be made clear that council is not planning a single $1 billion road project, but is considering traffic management for the next 30 years or more.
"Council has not produced plans suitable for approval of a new road, and hidden the plans from the community, but has followed due process by producing concept plans for comparison," she said.
"Council has not ignored environmental and social impacts or denied proper community consultation, because those matters will be addressed in the coming investigations."
We are getting on with a robust, transparent investigation, absolutely essential for best possible solutions and any certainty for the future.Cr Lisa Intemann
She has praised councillors who have worked closely together, and with council staff, to ensure thorough debate on decisions.
"Strong teamwork was notable in our council receiving the prestigious AR Bluett award two years ago as NSW's most progressive council, and it's truly disappointing that mayor Pinson has chosen not to join our regular councillor portfolios and catch-ups.
"Traffic network planning is the most critical local strategic task right now.
"The main focus is long term - looking more than 30 years ahead. But it also examines short and medium term answers for existing trouble spots like Lake Road, Wrights Road/Oxley Highway and Ocean Drive, and all of it needs significant NSW government partnership.
"We are getting on with a robust, transparent investigation, absolutely essential for best possible solutions and any certainty for the future."