WHAT started out as a photo opportunity turned into a town hall-style debate at Warrnambool saleyards yesterday, with mayor Michael Neoh coming face-to-face with business owners and livestock agents.
Regulars filtered out of the Caramut Road site’s cafeteria to assemble in the courtyard when Cr Neoh and council chief executive Bruce Anson arrived to engage them in an impromptu question-and-answer session.
Organised in less than 24 hours, the crowd was originally assembled to take part in an en masse photo for The Standard, but the presence of civic leaders resulted in a lively debate that remained civil but turned into somewhat of an uncomfortable experience for the city’s mayor.
Warrnambool Stock Agents’ Association president Kieran Johnstone quickly stepped in to chair the 60-minute forum with crowd comments ranging from courteous to terse.
Many of the speakers expressed dissatisfaction about potential suitor Regional Infrastructure Proprietary Limited (RIPL), which was flagged last month as the city council’s preferred proponent to build new saleyards within 40 kilometres of Warrnambool’s municipal boundary.
The 40-kilometre stipulation was a major sticking point, with many claiming it was too far from Warrnambool’s city centre and would create an economic vacuum.
In one of the more heated exchanges of the forum, Cr Neoh was locked in debate with former Moyne Shire mayor Gerald Madden who is now the stock agents’ association secretary.
It wasn’t the first time Cr Neoh and Mr Madden had been involved in a verbal stand-off with the association secretary describing councillors as “the biggest joke in Warrnambool” at a council meeting on Monday evening.
Yesterday, Mr Madden called on the city council to clearly describe how it would proceed with RIPL or any other suitor and claimed the mayor had been sending mixed messages to the public.
Cr Neoh fired back, restating that no contracts had been signed with RIPL and that no new site had been selected.
The mayor also expressed frustration at suggestions made by undefined figures that a site had been chosen, adding the process was far from over.