Tomich: Online cowards, NIMBY and 'cave people'

LES Tomich was never one to hit back openly at personal attacks.

As Albury Council general manager for seven years, he didn’t join in spats among councillors or respond to being openly criticised in blogs.

However, now, for the first time, he has revealed he thinks some of his blogging critics have been “cowardly”.

Mr Tomich, whose resignation from the council takes effect on Monday, says computer technology has changed the nature of how people perceive the council because critics can have free rein.

He said one website that made “vicious” attacks on a woman councillor and himself was closed down some years ago after police intervened.

But another website that frequently attacks him and some councillors continues, even while he has remained on the sick list for 12 months.

“These websites are unfortunate — it’s a coward’s way of dealing with matters,” he said.

“Most of these people have rarely approached the council or the individual concerned on the matter in hand.

“Personal attacks in any public debate are unfortunate.

“They rarely lead to a solution and are a sign of weakness of character or a weakness of the argument.

“I’ve always tried not to react in public.”

Mr Tomich isn’t against “public consultation” but has some tips for new councillors.

He warns they will be lobbied hard by special interest groups or individuals and have a duty to listen.

But at the end of the day they must make decisions “for the other 90 per cent — the silent majority”.

He jokingly warns them against NIMBY (“not in my backyard”) groups and CAVE people (“citizens against virtually everything”).

As well, there are the ageing “virtual vigilantes” with nothing better to do than fire off whingeing emails.

In a wide-ranging interview on his 26 years with the council, Mr Tomich declined to pass judgment on colleagues or councillors — with one exception.

“I would class (former general manager) Ray Stubbs as my mentor,” he said.

“Ray provided significant advice on practices and procedures and he was the best person I worked with throughout my time in local government.” 

As for mayors, he said: “Let’s say they ranged from the dignified and statesmanlike, to the flamboyant, but each was committed to their city.”

John Roach was mayor when Mr Tomich joined the council, while as council chief since 2005 he has worked with mayors Arthur Frauenfelder, Amanda Duncan-Strelec, Stuart Baker, Patricia Gould and Alice Glachan.

As a director, he worked under general managers Mr Stubbs, Darryn Hartnett, Brian McLennan (acting) and Mark Henderson, the man he ultimately replaced in 2005.

He admits that there were “turbulent times” under Mr Hartnett (who was sacked in controversial circumstances).

As for Mr Henderson, he laughed and said: “Let’s say I learnt something from all of them”.

Mr Tomich’s initial job was deputy to chief health and building officer George Swinson but in 1992 he stepped up to be director of building services, gradually picking up health, all environmental services, planning, development and engineering.

Mr Tomich admits applying for jobs elsewhere in the early 1990s, but a councillor advised: “Stay your hand, we’ll be making changes soon”.

As a senior city official, he has been unashamedly “pro-development and pro-business”, believing that a council must partner with others for the city’s broader enhancement and prosperity.

Also, he has encouraged the council to start industrial estates because private enterprise just didn’t do that in Albury-Wodonga.

Mr Tomich says the Harvey Norman centre could not have happened without the council kicking it off.

“A private developer alone couldn’t have bought the old dog track from the Lands Department and then paid to put in all the services needed,” he said.

Although he has been at the forefront of 30 major council projects, he says each required a team effort, including partnering with non-council people.

Naturally he’s proud of the $53 million Volt Lane project that took 20 years of ultra-complicated deals to achieve, and of the $13 million library-museum project.

The Volt Lane project was so complex that it involved 19 separate contracts over 20 years but Mr Tomich feels vindicated.

“The council now owns the car park for 500 cars and we did it for $8 million, which is $16,000 per space compared with the $22,000 per space that the Wilson Street car park cost,” he said.

Likewise he says multimillion-dollar airport upgrades and the Airside, Nexus (Ettamogah) and airport industrial estates will benefit the city greatly for decades.

“The council must be actively involved in developing where it isn’t possible for private enterprise to undertake the role,” he said.

Another common factor is that almost every major project he handled was opposed by someone, often quite vehemently.

“I remember a meeting called against our plan for the library-museum, when 82 people turned up and only two spoke in favour,” he said.

“But now we have people queuing to get in when it opens every morning.”

Mr Tomich isn’t surprised at opposition to the $10.5 million art gallery extension, which he says is “a great project”.

“It would put Albury on the map as a cultural destination,” he says.

“I believe the council will make the right decision in February and that the decision will be vindicated.”

“Councils aren’t just about roads, rates and rubbish but need lifestyle things to make a good city.”

And that is partly why Mr Tomich and his wife Helen will continue to live in Albury.

At 63, he has no plans for a quiet retirement — and now that he’s fit again, he is exploring how to use his skills to benefit the community.

It was purely on medical advice that he quit a job that entailed running a $100 million-a-year business with all its complexities, decision-making, stress and long hours.

But Mr Tomich said that giving up the big job didn’t mean he couldn’t work in other ways.

He will resume the chairmanship of Apprentices Trainees Employment Ltd (ATEL), of which he has been a board member for 23 years.

“It’s now a very big organisation with 150 staff and 750 apprentices and trainees,” he said. 

He will also continue on the board of Murray Regional Development Australia.

“We intend to stay in Albury because we’ve got family here and also the city has got everything you want,” he said.