Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Secret Sale of Scone Library

By Sue Abbott

The sudden sale of the Scone Library agreed upon by the Upper Hunter Shire Council at an extrordinary 'in camera' council meeting back in June 2015 has come as a nasty surprise to the residents of Scone.

Local people are outraged by the sudden jeopardy of much loved services, organised and run from this building, and understandably have been demanding answers to the council's hasty manoeuvres. 

Reading the many letters (here, here, here, here, here and here just for starters) published in the Scone Advocate over the past few weeks along with Joanne McCarthy’s Newcastle Herald article, I feel gravely concerned about these recent municipal proceedings.

Many questions beg to be answered yet so far the Upper Hunter Shire Council has failed to answer them.

By way of limited explanation from the Upper Hunter Shire Council found in the 'lately-added'-due to-'administrative-error'-minutes, it would appear that the Upper Hunter Shire Council saw fit to hide behind a much used section of the Local Government Act 1993:

10A Which parts of a meeting can be closed to the public?

(2) The matters and information are the following: 

(c) information that would, if disclosed, confer a commercial advantage on a person with whom the council is conducting (or proposes to conduct) business,

... which, I might add somewhat pedantically, was quoted incorrectly when this section was mentioned for the first time in those 'lately-added'-due-to-'administrative-error'-minutes. 

But I wonder why council felt the need to quote this particular section in their minutes when we had already been informed by the local paper that:

Due to the [premises'] classification as operational land, the council was not required under the Local Government Act to consult with the community about the sale and it was not required to go to             tender.
Who knew that the Scone Library building was 'operational land' as opposed to 'community land,' a classification immediately denuding us of any rights to information as council proceeded to sell this much loved building out from under our feet? 

Surely that cannot be correct? 

I thought 'operational land' was land such as council depots where councils stored their operational equipment, or rubbish dumps where councils coordinate and oversee their shire's waste management control. I thought 'operational land' was land that facilitated councils in their carrying out of council functions whereby councils could allow commercial activities such as regular markets to occur for the public benefit

And anyway why would the Scone Library come under the Local Government Act 1993 in terms of land classification when clearly the Scone Library building was acquired by council many moons before 1993? 

What am I missing here and what has not been explained?

I have to say that in my opinion I feel that the provisions of the Local Government Act 1993 have been misinterpreted by the Upper Hunter Shire Council as a shield to protect themselves from inevitable pressure that they knew would come from the Scone public when debating this incredibly sensitive topic.  

I also feel that the 'commercial interests' of Mr Jason Brooks, the purchaser of the Scone Library, have been deemed to be more important than the 'public interest' of the Scone community and that the Upper Hunter Shire Council were unable to distinguish between background information which ought to have been in the public domain and certain specific issues which might have merited some discussion in confidence.  

Was the Scone Library sale matter moved into confidence because of its local sensitivity and to avoid the controversy that the Upper Hunter Shire Council knew would be ignited within the local community once the matter was publicly flagged? 

By law the Upper Hunter Shire Council are required to adhere to and maintain high standards of accountability and transparency, yet how they hope to do that by conducting such important business secretly is beyond me.  

I cannot help but feel that the Upper Hunter Shire Council's secret meeting was a deliberate attempt to debate an issue of extreme importance to the Scone community without pressure from the Scone public and if this is the case I believe the Upper Hunter Shire Council's action was contrary to the democratic intention of the Local Government Act 1993.

We, the Scone Community have been robbed by the unseemly sale of the Scone Library and will suffer from its subsequent loss to us all.

Not happy, Upper Hunter Shire Council.

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