Church sale effort hits a block

April 22, 2021 BY

Church brawl: the Uniting Church at Rokewood was the focus of a special meeting of Golden Plains Shire council last Friday. Photo: MELBURNIAN/ WIKIMEDIA

A MOVE by Golden Plains Shire council to intervene in the sale of a church in Rokewood has hit a snag after a dissenting councillor threw a spanner in the works.

The effort to prevent the 155-year-old church building at 60 Ferrars Street, Rokewood being sold by the Uniting Church was sparked by an online petition set up by a group calling itself Heritage Rokewood.

The petition, that as of Tuesday afternoon had gathered just over 260 names, was shared online, including by Golden Plains Shire mayor Cr Helena Kirby, who subsequently called a special council meeting for 3pm on Friday, 16 April in an attempt to address issues around the sale.

“As the mayor of the Shire I felt that this was something that was, is, unique, this building, to our whole Shire and we need to have it out there in the public,” Cr Kirby said during the meeting.

“It’s for transparency for the whole of the Shire.”

As part of the special meeting two key motions were originally placed on the agenda.

One was that Shire officers prepare a report for the next regular council meeting looking at heritage protections for the church, the other was that investigations be undertaken as to the possibility of the Shire compulsorily acquiring the building.

If the building could have been compulsorily acquired, the plan was then to donate it to the Presbyterian Church, the building’s previous owners before the establishment of the Uniting Church in the late 1970s.

When it was realised that local government had no power to compulsorily acquire the building, a new motion was moved by Cr Brett Cunningham seeking to write to the State Government, ask them to compulsorily acquire the church, and then donate it back to the Presbyterian Church.

However, that move is currently moot, after Cr Owen Sharkey lodged an intent to rescind the previous resolution of council document on Friday night, meaning the compulsorily acquisition request letter can’t be actioned until council’s next regular meeting in late April.

Cr Sharkey questioned the process around the urgent meeting.

“Madam mayor are you suggesting that we’re trying to influence the outcome of a sale of a property?” he asked.

Cr Kirby’s reply was in the negative. “I’m just saying that because of the heritage, I think it’s something of state significance and this is where it is vital this be brought to council. It is what the community is asked for in the petition and that’s why it’s being brought to council as an urgent message,” she said.

Expressions of interest for the sale of the church closed on Monday afternoon and in a preamble to one of the meeting’s motions, Cr Kirby said the deadline on the EOI process necessitated the snap meeting of council.

“Prospective buyers are morally entitled to know before that deadline that the Uniting Church… which holds the title to 60 Ferrars Street in trust for the Rokewood community does not have the support or the mandate of the Rokewood community to sell it,” she said.

Ultimately the move to hold the special meeting at short notice didn’t sit well with Cr Sharkey.

“I just feel terribly uncomfortable that we’re here today under [an] emergency meeting… and it is clear and apparent… we are effecting the sale of a property,” he said.

“This meeting is being rushed. I have not been gifted the time to be able to go over things.”

Cr Sharkey also accused the mayor of a conflict of interest after both she and her daughter shared the online petition on social media.

“This petition has been shared on Facebook nearly 30 times,” he said. “I believe that both yourself and a family member have done the campaigning.

“I can’t understand how you can sit in the chair impartial, and I don’t understand how you don’t have a conflict of interest on this matter.”

Cr Kirby rejected the conflict of interest claim.

“You can share anything on Facebook or wherever, and I don’t think that unless we have actually signed the petition, I do not have a conflict of interest,” she said.

Attempts to speak with the group behind the online petition, Heritage Rokewood, proved fruitless with an email reply that can be attributed to the organisation stating, “The mayor, Helena Kirby is a Rokewood resident and speaks for the township at this time.”

Attempts to speak with Cr Kirby about Heritage Rokewood’s claim were made but not responded to in time for publication.

Cr Les Rowe was not present during the special meeting held online, and while deputy-mayor Ian Getsom was in attendance for the start he dropped out mid-way through.

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