TOP 10: Southern Downs Mayor Vic Pennisi was at the centre of many of the council’s biggest 2020 moments.
TOP 10: Southern Downs Mayor Vic Pennisi was at the centre of many of the council’s biggest 2020 moments.

TOP 10: Moments that shaped SDRC in 2020

FROM battling pandemics or drought to councillors’ public controversies, the Southern Downs Regional Council faced its fair share of ups and downs this year.

Check out our compilation of the council’s biggest moments of 2020.

PANDEMIC RESPONSE

Arguably the most defining event of 2020, Southern Downs councillors were forced to adapt to the coronavirus pandemic in a number of ways.

From the newly elected council being sworn in and conducting their first several meetings via videolink to an enormous budgetary commitment, SDRC battled to meet restrictions while giving residents the best chance of keeping their heads above water.

Despite the council’s best efforts, a quarterly budget review revealed the $1.3 million raft of coronavirus measures could see SDRC reach a $700,000 deficit by the end of the financial year.

First meeting of Southern Downs Regional Council with Vic Pennisi as Mayor on April 29.
First meeting of Southern Downs Regional Council with Vic Pennisi as Mayor on April 29.

CHANGING OF THE GUARD

April’s local government election saw an almost total changing of the guard at SDRC, with Sheryl Windle, Cameron Gow, and Jo McNally the only incumbent councillors re-elected.

Southern Downs Mayor Vic Pennisi took the reins from predecessor Tracy Dobie, and was joined by Deputy Mayor Ross Bartley and councillors Andrew Gale, Marco Gliori, Cynthia McDonald, and Stephen Tancred.

All nine SDRC representatives stressed addressing a response to the coronavirus pandemic and water security as their top priorities.

CEO ASSAULTED BY DISGRUNTLED RESIDENT

When Killarney man Peter Lesley Smith pleaded guilty to assaulting former SDRC CEO David Keenan, he claimed six years of ongoing tensions drove him to the act.

The Warwick Magistrates Court heard 61-year-old Smith went to the council’s chambers to follow up unresolved complaints about incorrect rates charges and dogs attacking his own pet.

Smith became “agitated” during the confrontation, swearing loudly and banging his cane on the door before grabbing the then-CEO Mr Keenan around the neck in a brief struggle.

At the time of the incident, then-mayor Tracy Dobie told the Daily News it was a “very, very rare occurrence” among a community full of “generally incredibly polite and respectful” people.

Smith was fined $600 and no conviction was recorded.

EMU SWAMP DAM CONTROVERSY

The Granite Belt water security project remained a hot topic of council controversy throughout the year.

After years of lengthy and tense discussions, SDRC finally voted through a decision to buy into the irrigation project at the cost of 450ML from Storm King Dam, the equivalent of about $1.125 million.

Cr Pennisi referred to the investment as “salvation” for Stanthorpe residents still battling the drought, and SDRC’s biggest strategic vote in 17 years.

Former SDRC chief executive David Keenan.
Former SDRC chief executive David Keenan.

SUDDEN CEO RESIGNATION

Former CEO David Keenan made headlines more than once this year, announcing his shock departure from SDRC in April.

Mr Keenan offered his thanks to the mayors and councillors he worked with over the years, though did not reveal the reason behind his resignation.

The role was temporarily filled by SDRC director of sustainable development Jane Stroud, before former Stanthorpe resident and Quilpie Regional Council CEO David Burges took the reins permanently.

MAYOR, COUNCILLOR’S PUBLIC FEUD

Councillor Cynthia McDonald issued a public apology in October after an outspoken comment at a previous council meeting seemingly landed her in hot water.

The original comment was made at a council committee meeting on July 13, when Cr McDonald said she received a complaint about her agricultural portfolio regarding a “failing within (the council)”.

It was only minutes later within the same ordinary meeting that Cr Pennisi himself apologised directly to Cr McDonald for swearing while talking about her conduct.

“I don’t swear in front of my family and it is inappropriate for me to swear in the presence of a colleague, (so) consequently it is appropriate to offer an apology,” he said.

MORE COUNCILLOR CONTROVERSY

Southern Downs councillors locked horns on more than one occasion this year, with a tense and lengthy debate over the Cherrabah groundwater extraction project in August.

Council was first divided by an alternative proposal to widening the main road to the site, while Cr McDonald’s concerns over the road’s vehicle limit even saw Cr Pennisi warn he would call her out of order.

Earlier this year, Cr Tancred issued a formal apology after he made remarks deemed “totally out of line” by his fellow councillors.

“Yes, it’s important for the water portfolio manager not to be present for the water portfolio, because he may know something about water,” Cr Tancred said in regards to an apparent conflict of interest.

“I really thank my colleagues and the complainants for putting us in such a situation.”

The meeting was adjourned for several minutes following the outburst.

St Mary's Hall tennis courts.
St Mary's Hall tennis courts.

MAJOR DEVELOPMENTS

The ever-changing face of Warwick and the Southern Downs proved a source of contention for the council this year, with a number of major developments attracting blowback from the community.

Arguably one of the most controversial was the decision to approve a Mobil service station on the current St Mary’s Hall tennis courts site.

The development will see the tennis and squash courts and four small buildings next to the local heritage-listed St Mary’s Hall demolished, making way for Warwick’s tenth service station.

Earlier this month, NRG Services lodged a development application to begin the demolition process, though it was not without contention from neighbouring residents and landlords.

For more major council-approved developments, click here.

WATER SECURITY

Finding a way to support Southern Downs residents remained a top priority for both new and old councils this year, but their plans of attack weren’t without controversy.

One of the most significant issues was the $1 million rural water tank rebate scheme, where nearly 1000 applications and an electronic ballot system saw less than half of those in need receive funding.

Cr Pennisi did not rule out another round of the rebate, though warned it would rely on additional funding.

Other council initiatives to improve water security were better received, such as the downgrading of emergency water restrictions in January and the installation of a $5 million recycled water project in Warwick.

Wiley's masterplan for Warwick Saleyards upgrades.
Wiley's masterplan for Warwick Saleyards upgrades.

SALEYARDS OVERHAUL

The Southern Downs’ agricultural industries faced a brutal 2020 under a global pandemic, drought, and bushfires, but a massive decision to pursue a total facility overhaul could shine new light.

If a ‘Greenfields’ or new, purpose-built site is the preferred option, which is currently the indication from both Southern Downs councillors and the Saleyards Advisory Committee, it will be built within 10 minutes of the Warwick CBD.

The plans come as SDRC also announced a $500,000 investment in a recycled water plant at the Warwick Saleyards truck wash in an effort to ‘drought-proof’ the facility.


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