Sacred tree removal leaves council scar
A FORMER Clarence Valley mayor has publicly apologised for the removal of a culturally significant tree from a Grafton street, which has the potential to cost the Clarence Valley Council $1.1million.
At Tuesday's council meeting, Cr Richie Williamson unreservedly apologised to the Aboriginal community for the removal of a scar tree over a period from 2013 to 2016, when he was mayor.
The council was discussing a response to a Land and Environment Court case in which the council had pleaded guilty to removing the remains of a scar tree on the corner of Breimba and Dovedale streets in 2016.
The history of the tree's removal over that time is a record of council bungling, which had already cost the council $1500 for breaching the National Parks and Wildlife Act.
In 2013 council staff lopped the crown of the tree after an aboriculture inspection found the tree to be in poor condition.
In response the council provided staff with training in dealing with items of cultural significance to Aboriginal people, introduced staff to the Office of Environment and Heritage's handbook on scar trees, tightened up procedure to ensure approval and assessments were completed and preparation of a Clarence Valley Aboriginal Heritage Study.
Despite this, three years later council staff completely removed the tree without approval from higher management., provoking an OEH investigation that has led to the Land and Environment Court case, which is ongoing.
During the debate, Cr Williamson addressed the meeting to tell of his deep embarrassment on behalf of the council and personal and deep sadness at the actions that led to the removal of the tree.
"I met with a number of Elders who were deeply, deeply hurt by the action of the council," he said.
"I also recall it was around the time of NAIDOC Week and it was very sad for them and the hurt was clearly displayed on their faces."
Cr Williamson said the destruction of the tree should never have happened and he remained remorseful for the actions of others.
"I'm sure we all in this chamber would expect and are striving for better within our organisation," he said.
"We have come some way, but clearly we have a long way to go."
The council voted unanimously to support an apology to the Aboriginal community and other measures.
Deputy mayor Jason Kingsley was successful with an amendment to make a council committee, the Clarence Valley Aboriginal Advisory Committee, one of the key consultative bodies. Cr Kingsley said the committee, which was not mentioned in the original staff recommendation, represented the three Aboriginal nations in the Clarence Valley and the six communities. Cr Karen Toms described the actions of council staff in removing the tree as "shocking and embarrassing. "It's even more shocking because it's happened twice," she said. Cr Toms said while unreserved apologies were necessary there was something more important to promise the community. "We must ensure this never happens again," she said. "In 2013 the OEH already spoke with us about the trimming of that tree and in this report on page 10 it tells me the undertakings we told them would happen didn't actually occur until 2016. "That really worries me. I see that's a big gap in what really happened. "It's easy to say we're sorry, but something went really, really wrong in those three years and I just hope that the people in charge - and that's us - ... (ensure) that we never ever have something like this happen again." The councillors voted unanimously to unreservedly apologise and express its extreme remorse to the Aboriginal communities of the Clarence Valley and the Land and Environment Court for the removal of the tree, to consult with the Clarence Valley Aboriginal Advisory Committee and Grafton Ngerrie Local Aboriginal Land Council with regard to suitable and acceptable future management of the site and any other site of significance in the Clarence Valley those bodies Aboriginal Advisory Committee nominate and the installation of interpretive measures to tell the story of the history of the scar tree. It also voted to seek proposals from the CVAAC for the provision of suitable cultural awareness training of Council's staff report to council's August meeting with a list of all policies, protocols and procedures that are relevant to Aboriginal matters and the removal and/or maintenance of trees, and a timeframe for review of each of these items prior to December 2018.