QUESTIONS ASKED: Members of the Gol Gol community, including Gol Gol Cafe Bakery proprietor, Jason Zambelli, are concerned that the tender process for a kiosk to be established in James King Park has been less than transparent, and are asking questions of Wentworth Shire Council. Photo: PAUL MENSCH

By JOHN DOOLEY

CONCERNED Gol Gol residents are asking serious questions about a Wentworth Shire Council (WSC) plan to establish a ‘container cafe’ and information centre in James King Park.

Gol Gol Cafe Bakery proprietor Jason Zambelli said that he, and a number of other residents, believed the project had so far lacked transparency.

“The process surrounding this development has been effectively hidden from the community,” he said. “There are a lot of unanswered questions in the whole process.”

The cafe proposal was first mentioned in a Council meeting held on October 18, 2017, the minutes of which state: “Council has been approached to consider the idea of establishing a café at James King Park. Before the idea can be explored further, Council needs to decide if the idea has merit, and whether it fits with the long-term amenity of the park.”

The minutes further state: “It will be difficult for Council to prove or justify that this concept is so unique that there is only one proponent capable of providing the service, therefore to ensure transparency and accountability this process should be conducted via an open tender/expression of interest.”

Council then resolved to endorse the concept for a café at James King Park, and to select a preferred applicant after undertaking “a competitive expression of interest process.”

In response to that, Mr Zambelli and his fellow concerned ratepayers claim the exact opposite had occurred. 

“It has been kept very quiet. No-one has been told anything,” he said. “The James King Park User Group, who oversaw the park during its redevelopment, have also been kept in the dark.

“The whole community is talking about it. I’ve put a post up on Facebook which asks some questions – I haven’t accused anyone of anything – but why is it a secret process – what advantage is that for the community?” 

Mr Zambelli said that other stakeholders have also been excluded from the process.

“The tennis club hasn’t been made aware of it; there hasn’t been a DA available for discussion, and our group had to appoint a planner to go to Council in an attempt to get the project put on hold and to have Council enter into some community consultation,” he said.

“There hasn’t been any disclosure of rental, there’s no disclosure of who’s paying for what, and now, at the last minute, the User Group has been made aware of a potential ‘Tourist Information Centre’ that would form part of the kiosk.

“That would seem to have been included to justify ratepayers contribution to the private enterprise.

“I don’t have a problem with the development. I have a concern about the process and not understanding if the outgoings are fair. Is the Council paying the applicant to run the information centre – what deals have been done that the community isn’t aware of?”

Since speaking with Mr Zambelli, the Mildura Weekly has also been provided with information circulated to the James King Park User Group which sums up community concern.

That information, in a document circulating in the community, clearly outlines a strong belief that the process undertaken by Council has been ‘tainted’, and that the key issue involves “a poorly managed conflict of interest that has ultimately eroded transparency and accountability.”

The document also outlines a belief that due to the nature of the process, the Gol Gol community has been unnecessarily divided, the reputation of Council damaged, and the validity of any future Council decision (for or against the development) will be met with scorn.

It further states that Council’s “failure to appropriately manage this conflict of interest, and to follow due process, has resulted in financial detriment to applicants and a failure to fulfil the Council resolution from October 18, 2017.”

The document further claims that: “On a date yet to be determined, an EOI (Expression of Interest) was sought from suitably experienced applicants to operate a café at James King Park Gol Gol.”

“The EOI process administered by Council was manifestly flawed in the following regard – James King Park is classified as RE1 – Public Recreation. Cafés and restaurants are prohibited on such land. 

“A café is a markedly different concept to a kiosk, as it involves a greater infrastructure investment and a larger payroll. Had the EOI been for a kiosk… it would have generated wider interest.

“The most basic elements of the proposed café were not defined (scope of work). The only guidance to prospective applicants was contained in the advertisement to operate a café at James King Park Gol Gol.

“Council issued the EOI with a 21-day deadline (minimum statutory requirement). Given that this project involved construction of a building on a culturally and environmentally-sensitive site, a long lead time was justified – with ongoing advertising and consultation opportunities for prospective applicants.

“The failure of Council to define the scope of works – coupled with the short timeframes for responding (21 days) – effectively neutralised Council’s resolution to select a preferred applicant after undertaking a competitive expression of interest process.”

The document also states that despite this “fatal flaw”, Council awarded a tender to operate a café in James King Park (contingent on the obtaining of a DA). The DA was lodged with Council on July 6, 2018.

“It is abundantly clear that the Health and Planning Department’s assessment of the DA is, to a large degree, influenced by the applicants’ justifications for a café – not a kiosk,” the document reads. “This is a critical factor given the marked difference between the two concepts.

“In reality, a kiosk is a food dispensary – nothing more. If the application is successful, the applicants will not be permitted to provide seating or chairs for customers.

“Although the amended site plans indicate that the kiosk will include a ‘Visitor Information Area’, this is a misnomer. It’s expected that the applicants intend to devote this area for seating and chairs – something that is clearly outside the scope of a kiosk.”

The ‘Weekly also submitted a list of questions to WSC, with the organisation choosing to respond to each in turn, as follows:

MW: Was there a tender document available to all community members regarding this opportunity?  

WSC: Council ran an Expression of Interest process which was advertised through locally-circulating newspapers which demonstrates an affirmative answer to the question.

MW: Why is there a Visitor Information Centre area identified in the cafe?

WSC: This is the community public interest part of the kiosk. This is an additional dimension to the traditional food vendor outlet.

MW: Is this to justify ratepayer funds contributing to the project?

WSC: Ratepayers funds have not been allocated to this project.

MW: Will the café owners be paid to run the Information Centre?

WSC: This is not the case.

MW: Will ratepayers be contributing any infrastructure costs to the proposed development?

WSC: Council, representing the ratepayers, have not committed any contribution to infrastructure costs toward the establishment of the kiosk in the proposed location.

MW: What rent, rates, insurance, electricity, water and waste management have been negotiated?

WSC: This matter remains commercial in confidence pending the outcome of the Council deliberations and subsequent negotiation.

MW: What financial viability studies have been conducted on the business activities?

WSC: This matter rests with those that expressed interest in the concept. No work on this item has been undertaken by Council.

MW: If the business fails who pays for the clean-up? 

WSC: The proposed site occupation agreement would have clauses to reflect that the occupants would be responsible for this aspect.

MW: If Aboriginal cultural heritage material is disturbed who pays for the appropriate actions?

WSC: The proponent of the proposed development.

MW: Has a traffic movement and parking study been undertaken?

WSC: The proposal has, through the Development Application process, been supported by statements to the effect that adequate parking will be available both on site and within the road reserve.

It is understood that the WSC contends that a tender document exists, but it hasn’t been produced despite repeated requests from community members. 

It is further believed that the document the WSC is referring to is a proposal document prepared by the applicant – not a tender document prepared by Council that clearly defines the scope of works to be undertaken.

In another twist to the saga, the Mildura Weekly received word just prior to going to print last night that the entire proposal has now been put on hold by WSC.

In a written response provided to the ‘Weekly, WSC said that: “There have been some concerns expressed… about what appears to have been publically bias support for the objections transmitted through several platforms of media, from a select few Gol Gol residents.  

“Therefore, in demonstrating procedural fairness to all impacted parties, Council is seeking external opinion in relation to the process to date. 

“The opinion will be considered as a possible guide for Council as to the appropriate way of dealing with these matters in due course. 

“The application remains on hold pending that advice.”