Mayor fails to cool the heated mood at protest over GM’s sacking

Susanna Freymark

The temperature and the mood were heated outside the Kyogle Council Chambers yesterday, Tuesday, December 19.

More than 250 gathered to protest the sudden sacking of Graham Kennett as council’s general manager.

Former mayor Ross Brown and business owner David Scarrabelotti spoke to the crowd. Mr Brown and Mr Scarrabelotti were nominated by the crowd to meet with the Minister for Local Government Ron Hoenig to voice the residents’ concerns and ask the minister to intervene.

Mr Kennett was at the protest handing out cold bottles of water.

At the December 11 monthly council meeting, five councillors voted to dismiss Mr Kennett in a rushed urgent motion at the end of the meeting.

No reason for his dismissal was given at the meeting and none was given when mayor Kylie Webster came out of the chambers yesterday and addressed the crowd.

Mayor Kylie Webster waits in the background as former mayor Ross Brown and businessman David Scarrabelotti speak to the crowd.

She was met with boos and shouts from the crowd. Ms Webster spoke about the council being on track and how much staff were valued.

“I hope in time when you learn how things happen in local government and that you’re aware of why they happen the way they are that you will be able to understand, if not forgive, at least understand,” Ms Webster said. Watch a video of her speech here.

This didn’t go down well. There were more boos and jeers and one woman shouted, “Communicate with your constituents.”

The mayor bowed to the crowd on the steps of the chamber as she went back inside.

People then filed into the chambers, filling every corner of the meeting space.

Several times during the meeting, the mayor asked the public to be quiet.

The meeting had been scheduled to discuss the council’s financial report. This is done every year. But this was the first meeting since the surprise sacking and it was an opportunity for residents to voice their dissatisfaction.

In the chambers, Mr Brown addressed council. He said the contract for the interim general manager was for 18 months which was not allowed under local government laws.

“You cannot unring the bell,” Mr Brown said.

“You’re trying to change it in retrospect.

“Councillors can be charged for illegal activities. It’s been done before and it can happen again.”

Ms Webster had put up an urgent motion to change the interim GM’s contract to 12 months and she was pushing for the council to go into confidential session to discuss this.

Councillor Danielle Mulholland was not present at the meeting as she had a hospital appointment. Councillors Hayden Doolan and Maggie May were present via a live screen link. Councillor Janet Wilson questioned Ms May’s right to vote as she had sold her Kyogle property 10 days prior.

Ms Webster said she could vote.

Protestors outside the council chambers before the meeting.

Councillor John Burley and councillors Wilson and Doolan protested loudly against going into confidential – their argument was that it was not private because the discussion was not about a staff member but about a contract.

The mayor was having none of it and even suggested putting Mr Doolan on mute when he called a point of order.

The public gallery was invited to speak.

Robin Harley stood up. He wanted to know why the action to sack Mr Kennett was taken.

Ms Webster reminded him that he could only speak about whether the council went into confidential or not.

“Why can’t you be transparent?” Mr Harley said.

“It’s the law. It’s procedure. Why can’t people get it through their heads,” Ms Webster said.

The public was told to leave the meeting room. For a moment, it seemed they might refuse, but slowly the room emptied.

The interim GM Brett Kelly also left the room while the motion was discussed.

Most people waiting outside while the confidential discussion took place simply wanted to know what was going on.

Why was the GM sacked when he appeared to be doing a good job?

Why had it been done so quickly without warning?

And how did the councillors who voted to sack Mr Kennett have an interim GM ready to go?

When the doors opened, a resolution from the discussion was that the contract would be changed to 12 months.

Mr Kelly spoke to the meeting.

“This is my second day here,” he said.

He praised the council’s financial report.

“I don’t see any major issue.”

Mr Kelly said communication was key to the GM role and he said he was happy to meet with residents. He would set up a weekly planner so “everyone knows what I’m doing”.

“There won’t be any surprises,” Mr Kelly said.

The crowd voted on four resolutions.

The irony of this statement was not lost on those present – the sacking was a surprise even though the five councillors, Tom Cooper, James Murray, Rob Cullen, Ms May and Ms Webster had tried to dismiss Mr Kennett in April.

Back then, the community and many council staff protested before the meeting – leading to a public apology from the mayor.

This time, the action was swift and secret. Not every councillor knew it was coming.

The community has responded in anger and dismay. Not giving a reason for Mr Kennett’s sacking may be legal by Local Government Department rules but it leaves a vacuum in the community.

There is a gaping hole about why the councillors have done this and that hole without an explanation gets filled with rumours, accusations and suspicions.

The action may be legal but it is not ethical. It is not fair to the community whether they liked Mr Kennett or not.

It is about transparency and honesty, a platform several councillors stood on when running for office.

The council elections in September will tell how the community feels about what has happened.

There is petition opposing the sacking of the GM and calling for the council to be sacked.

The petition is available to sign in Kyogle and villages at various shops. More than 1000 people have signed already.

Below are photos from the day.

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