Opinion – Why The Bight Cemetery Matters!

(Opinion of The Blight of the Bight Group)

The two-year anniversary of the desecration of The Bight Cemetery has just passed. The lack of progress in the repair of the damaged monuments might lead some to question whether the Bight Cemetery really matters.

It Matters to Families

Two years ago, families found their ancestors’ and loved ones’ monuments damaged and laying on the ground. They had no prior knowledge that this was going to happen. There had been no consultation. Two years later they want to see the monuments restored.  The Bight Cemetery is one of many small bush cemeteries in the Mid Coast region, holding not only treasured memories for generations of descendants of early settlers, but holding historical and heritage value to the whole community. The Bight Cemetery is a much-loved place, quiet and tranquil, a place to visit and remember family stories and local history.

The wider community watches on, worried that something similar might happen to their family graves and monuments at another cemetery under the management of MCC. 

It Provides an Insight into How Council Operates

The Bight Cemetery story offers a window through which we can see how Council operates and how it performs.  For two years we have watched as Council has stumbled in their attempts to set things right.  Issue after issue has been revealed as Council has tried to play catch up on operational and policy matters that they should be fully across.  The Bight Cemetery has proved to be a litmus test for how Council performs in a crisis, and how it deals with the community.  

There are three key questions to ask:  the first question is one of performance, has the Bight Cemetery matter been dealt with competently? The second question is one of compliance: has the Bight Cemetery matter been dealt with in compliance with regulations, policies and codes of practice, etc. ? The third question is one of values and business ethics:  has Council’s actions reflected the values and business ethics they espouse? 

Competence and performance

A crisis, such as the desecration of the Heritage Golden Cypress tree line and monuments at the Bight Cemetery shines a spotlight on how well a business is operating and what gaps there are.  It quickly became apparent to the Bight families that Council’s performance fell short.  They did not appear to have any policies, processes or procedures for the cemetery business, nor a published business plan, nor an approved plan for the Monument Risk Assessment Program. It seems that the staff who knocked down the graves at the Bight cemetery had not received any training in monument assessment. It seems that planning and environmental regulations were ignored or not given due consideration, as was the licence for the endangered Donkey Orchid. This list goes on.

As the two years has unfolded, other problems have emerged; Council’s commitment to community consultation has waned from consulting with families, the Blight of the Bight group and the National Trust to the occasional one-way email update.  If Council had worked regularly with affected families and subject matter experts such as the National Trust’s Cemeteries Advisor, to keep information and communication channels open, Council would have demonstrated its commitment to community and stakeholder consultation, more may have been achieved and Council may have commenced to rehabilitate its reputation.

Council has ignored most of the extensive feedback from families on the draft Conservation Management Plan, which aimed to correct a multitude of errors in the document. The document has been signed off and made available to the public with substantial errors – it is not an accurate record.

Council has developed and approved two Restoration Action Plans, detailing the necessary steps for the repair and restoration of the damaged monuments, with dates and timelines. Neither the dates or timelines are being adhered to. Meeting objectives and timelines is a measure of both competence and accountability.

Council has questions to answer about whether it breached its responsibilities relating to the registration and transfer of interment rights. Council is required to keep an updated register of interment rights for all graves for which it is responsible, but it took an alert from Cemeteries and Crematoria NSW in November 2020 to get Council to address this issue in relation to the Bight.  Only in June 2021 did Council approve and make available on their website, the necessary forms for the transfer of an interment right. At this point many Bight Cemetery families do not know who Council has on their records as the interment rights holder to their family’s graves.

Despite a 25 March 2020 resolution that directed Council staff to undertake an assessment of all impacted headstones, and despite Council being provided with a list of suitable Heritage Stone Masons by the National Trust and their own Heritage Advisor, no action seems to have been taken. The Restoration Action Plan approved in December 2020 scheduled this assessment for January and March 2021, but nothing has happened, some 16 months since the original resolution.

Comply Regulations, Policies and Codes of Practice

There are multiple instances where questions can be asked about whether Council has complied with its obligations. Council should provide answers. For instance:

Why didn’t Council have a Development Application for the Monument Risk Assessment Program (MRAP) at the Bight?

Was the MRAP at The Bight Cemetery in line with the Cemeteries and Crematoria Act?  A large number of the monuments seem to have been in good repair and should not have been disturbed, and this was done without notification of the Interment Right holders.

Why did the Council undertake works at the Bight Cemetery without an active licence for the critically endangered Yellow Tailed Donkey Orchid and then, after obtaining a licence renewal, mow the cemetery in the exclusion period? 

Were obligations under the Privacy Act fully considered in advance of Council’s decision to mount surveillance cameras at the Bight?

Why was a trade union official permitted to address a Council meeting, seemingly against Council’s own Code of Conduct and despite three Councillors pointing this out? 

Values and business ethics

Over the last two years Council has demonstrated significant gaps between its espoused values, as stated in its Statement of Business Ethics, and its actual behaviour. 

Be accountable and act in the public interest 

One wonders whether Council has lost sight of what ‘in the public interest’ means – both the interests of the impacted families and the broader community, who don’t want to see what happened at the Bight repeated elsewhere.  Two years on and no repair work has commenced, let alone been completed. Also, there is nothing to suggest the necessary cemetery policies, processes and procedures have been developed.  The rejection of most of the substantial feedback from the community on the Conservation Management Plan makes a joke of the consultation process. How could this be in the public interest?

Act honestly, openly, fairly and ethically in all their dealings with you; exercise authority appropriately, lawfully and transparently 

For those who have attended, watched or listened to the Council meetings where the Bight issue has been debated, we leave it up to you to assess whether they lived up to these ethics.

Promote fair and open competition while seeking best value for money; fully and clearly document all procurement activities and decisions to provide an effective audit trail to allow for effective performance review of contracts; and treat all potential suppliers with impartiality and fairness and give equal access to information and opportunities. 

MidCoast Council have not yet confirmed to affected families that they have tendered for suitably qualified heritage and ordinary stone masons for the assessment of the damaged monuments and the preparation of individual specifications of the scopes of works for their repair. After two years, why not?

Not call tenders unless Council has a firm intention to proceed to contract

The fact that it appears that Council has not called tenders for the assessment of damaged monuments after being directed to do so by Council resolution (25 March 2020) makes one question whether Council has any intention to proceed with the independent assessment of the damaged monuments’ condition and the specifications for the required repairs.  

So here we are two years on, and nothing has happened. It speaks volumes about Council’s operations.  This situation and track record would never be tolerated in corporate Australia. Why do the impacted families, community and MidCoast ratepayers have to accept it? As we head into a local government election on the 4 December, it is worth reflecting on this sorry saga when casting your vote.

Does the Bight matter? Yes!

Tim Crossley

For Blight of the Bight

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