Kelly Burke June 11, 2012
THE Salvation Army and a state Liberal Party campaign director are implicated in a scheme to contaminate the public consultation process for a multimillion-dollar redevelopment.
The controversial redevelopment of the Coxs Road shopping strip has divided Ryde Council and resulted in two competing proposals going on exhibition, one put up by the council, the other by the two major landowners of the complex, led by a local businessman, Norm Cerreto.
Last Tuesday, the Minchinbury arm of the Salvation Army's Joblink service put out an unusual call: ''Hi Everyone, I have a request from someone who is willing to pay $15 per hour for people to hand-write letters in support of the Coxs Road [landowners] Master Plan at Ryde. Please read through the information below and if you would like to offer your services I will forward your email address on to the organiser of this project.''
Attached to the email dispatched to clients of the recruitment agency was a stack of template letters, all addressed to the council's general manager, John Neish. For $15 an hour, writers could take up numerous guises, many professing their bona fides as concerned local residents with openings such as ''Dear John, as the mother of schoolchildren living in the Ryde neighbourhood'', ''Dear John, as an elderly and long-term resident who lives near Coxs Road'' and ''Dear John, I walk on Coxs Road every day''.
All 50 of the template letters express overwhelming support for Mr Cerreto's proposal, which is two storeys higher than the council's proposal. Some are as pithy and straight to the point as: ''Dear John, as I compare the two plans for Coxs Road I can only show my support for the Landowners Community Master Plan. It is the Better option of the two and I want to see if [sic] implemented. Yours truly.''
When contacted by the Herald, Mr Cerreto denied all knowledge of the scheme, known as astroturfing. ''I don't know anything about it,'' he said on Friday.
Last year, Mr Cerreto's millionaire father, Salvatore ''Sam'' Cerreto, was identified as Coxs Road's notorious ''phantom poopster''.
For years, Norm Cerreto's neighbours and cafe competitors on the strip had been regularly confronted by smeared human faeces on their shop doorsteps. In May last year Sam Cerreto pleaded guilty to charges of behaving in an offensive manner and was given a conditional discharge by the judge in Ryde Local Court.
Soon after the Herald spoke with Mr Cerreto, a woman who would only give her first name of Millie called and identified herself as ''a friend of Norm's''. She, too, denied any knowledge of the campaign, but admitted that the Salvation Army employee whose name was on the email was a long-term friend of hers.
The woman was identified as Millie Booth, a Liberal Party stalwart who directed the election campaign last year for Ryde's local member, Victor Dominello.
The ''dear John'' at the centre of the matter, Mr Neish, said more than 60 submissions had been received by Ryde Council over the redevelopment, but he could not say how many were in support of Mr Cerreto's proposal. He said a full investigation would be launched tomorrow.
Major Bruce Harmer, the head of communications at the Salvation Army, said the employee involved at the recruitment agency had been counselled. ''She's full of regret,'' he said. ''It was a mistake. We don't participate in activities like that.''
A Herald article on Monday titled ''Salvos helped organise dubious lobbying over development proposal'' may have implied that Mr Norm Cerreto had planned to pay for letters of support for a shopping strip development at Ryde.
The Herald accepts that Mr Cerreto had no knowledge or involvement in a planned letter campaign and apologises to him for any loss or harm that may have been caused by the article.