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Airfield debate takes real dive

Clarence Valley Mayor, Cr Richie Williamson, took the unusual step of apologising for the comments made by other councillors at the last meeting.
Clarence Valley Mayor, Cr Richie Williamson, took the unusual step of apologising for the comments made by other councillors at the last meeting. Jojo Newby

CLARENCE Valley Mayor Richie Williamson apologised for comments from two councillors during a lengthy and spiteful debate over the future of skydiving at South Grafton Airfield.

Cr Williamson said comments from Crs Andrew Baker and Karen Toms about the work of volunteers who manage the airfield for council were unfounded.

"Never before have I witnessed in this chamber such an appalling attitude to volunteers," Cr Williamson said.

"For that type of behaviour I am extremely embarrassed and I issue a personal apology."

Section 355 committees are groups of volunteers appointed to manage some council assets. Councillors have the option of being members on them.

The debate, on Tuesday, started innocuously enough with a motion from Cr Jason Kingsley that council not allow skydiving activities at its airfields.

This was too much for Cr Baker, who attempted to introduce a series of amendments seeking to close the airfield, bulldoze the hangers and remove the current 355 committee.

All were defeated. He also moved a dissent motion when one amendment was considered too similar to a previous failed amendment. It also failed.

Cr Baker argued the attempt to remove skydiving from the airfield reflected a committee running the airfield like a private club.

"Council had a facility that was in my view meant to be available to as many members of the public that can safely and reasonably make use of that facility," he said.

"From my observation of the facility over the past year, it should not be considered a public facility, but a private one under the guise of being a council-owned facility."

Cr Baker also argued the council should then operate the airfield's functions, including skydiving, from the regional airfield less than 10 nautical miles away.

Cr Williamson said critics of the committee were wrong in a number of their assumptions. He said the airfield was not council-owned, but leased from the Department of Lands to be used as an airfield.

"Since 2005-06, the committee has put in an excellent business plan, which has the airfield operating at zero cost to the ratepayers," he said.

He said the debate had moved away from safety and litigation risks council faced if skydiving continued at the airfield.

"There is a risk here that is poorly understood, which has the potential to expose ratepayers to a risk that is too heavy for us to bear," he said.

After two hours of debate in which councillors voted down Cr Kingsley's original motion, they finally approved a foreshadowed motion from deputy mayor Craig Howe.

He moved the airport not be used as a parachute drop zone, that council begin discussions with skydiving company Coffs City Skydivers about an alternative drop zone, and council begin discussions with Coffs City Skydivers and other interested parties as to using the Grafton Regional Airport as a base of operation, including a drop zone.

President of the 355 committee Ken Dawes was pleased with the outcome.

"Cr Howe's' motion was in line with one of our proposals put to the council in our submission," he said.

Mr Dawes said he accepted Cr Williamson's apology for the comments from councillors, but said he was disappointed in their efforts.

"I expect more from people elected to represent the interests of ratepayers," he said.

"It was hard to sit there and listen to those two. Hearing them talk of closing airfields, sacking committees and bulldozing hangars. What a load of rubbish."

Topics:  andrew baker, clarence valley council, coffs city skydivers, craig howe, karen toms, richie williamson

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