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State Government called to investigate medical hub secrecy

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Trixi Oldfield, Naracoorte Community News

An angered group of Tatiara residents has called on the State Government to investigate Tatiara District Council’s “veil of secrecy” surrounding Bordertown’s proposed new medical hub.

Des Murray, Peter Grosser, Bryan Paech and John O’Brien, have written to Local Government Minister, Geoff Brock, asking him to “look into” council’s lack of consultation particularly about “the use of community land purchased to develop medical amenities”.

In the letter, the group says council “seems to be allowing a private development in preference to a community funded project which would be available to all doctors in Bordertown”. And they claimed the ensuing uncertainty has led to another doctor leaving the town.

But in a statement, Tatiara District Council Mayor, Graham Excell, said public consultation regarding commercial proposals was inappropriate.

And Mr Excell explained that the private proposal being led by medical professionals was one of the key differentiating factors for its success.

“Council felt that a development led by a medical professional was significantly more likely to succeed in the long term than one led by a community organisation, however passionate and well intentioned,” Mr Excell said.

In 2015, Tatiara District Council purchased land next to the Bordertown Memorial Hospital, so that a medical hub could be built – similar to the Kincraig Medical Clinic next to Naracoorte’s hospital.

By March 2021 two applicants had shown interest in developing the site – Dr Remona Pungutan, and the other was a community organisation, now known as Tatiara Wellness Fund.

Mr Excell said two signatories of the letter to Mr Brock, are current directors/shareholders of the Tatiara Wellness Fund.

In that letter to Mr Brock, the signatories explain that during the application process, meetings of council were held with the applicants, and further information was provided and discussed with council.

“At this point council then conducted all subsequent deliberations ‘In Confidence’ with no community participation,” their letter states.

“Attendees at council meetings were requested to leave the council chamber and no details of discussions or proposed actions were disclosed”.

A few months later, Tatiara District Council advised the Tatiara Wellness Fund that Dr Pungutan had been offered a long-term ground lease of the land, to develop and operate a medical hub. A council press release at the time said Dr Pungutan expected to complete the build by June 2022.

The letter to Mr Brock states: “Naturally the Tatiara wellness group was disappointed with the outcome knowing that they had $5m in funds for the purpose but were excluded from access to the land comprising 8000 square metres approximately.

“The decision excludes the other doctors in town.

“The proposal taken to council was fully funded by a benefactor wishing to provide funds for the project, and in addition there are other interested local donors.

“There is no council funding required and therefore no risk to council.”

The letter also raised issue with the native vegetation department highlighting no objection to development on the site in 2015 when it was bought, but this year the advice changed.

“Obviously this has thrown Dr Pungutun’s plans into disarray.

The Tatiara Wellness Fund cannot advance their plans either…and so…we lost a doctor to the town due to the uncertainty of his future here in Bordertown”, the signatories said. 

In a responding statement, Tatiara council mayor, Graham Excell, said the development was now able to “move forward” because Native Vegetation Council last week agreed to negotiations.

This included Dr Pungutan’s development being reoriented so “significant trees” could be protected.

In relation to the concerns about consultation and confidentiality, Mr Excell said it was inappropriate to publicly consult on commercial proposals. He said meetings were closed so council could “deal with commercial matters” in relation to the proposals.

He said Dr Pungutan’s proposal was the “only one to be led by medical professionals, with significant expertise and ability to manage and attract other medical specialists”.

Now contracts were finalised, he said the meeting minutes and agendas were available under the “confidential items released tab” on council’s website.

In regard to the Tatiara Wellness Fund (previously called Bordertown Health and Community Foundation) being fully funded to $5 million, Mr Excell said the proposal has “likely evolved over the last 18 months”

He said in April 2021, fund representatives told council a $4m estate was proposed to be bequeathed to the foundation (fund) and “that council may like to support the medical hub financially in the future, suggesting $100,000/year in council/ratepayer funds”.

“We are of course very conscious of the Tatiara Wellness Fund’s keen interest in progressing their proposal for an alternative medical hub and the difficulties the fund faces with such a development no longer able to go ahead on council land”.

The Local Government Minister has not yet responded to the group’s letter asking for him to look into the matter.

Naracoorte Community News 19 October 2022

This article appeared in the Naracoorte Community News.

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