BY ALEC SMART
Inner West Council Deputy Mayor Julie Passas is in hot water over an allegation that she abused and intimidated a gay neighbour after she saw a rainbow flag hanging on his balcony.
Ashfield resident Daniel Comensoli posted an accusation on Facebook on November 25 that Ashfield Councillor and Deputy Mayor Julie Passas used homophobic insults and repeatedly demanded, over the course of several days, that his rainbow flag be removed.
Comensoli claimed the initial confrontation took place on the day of the same-sex marriage plebiscite results 10 days earlier.
“After viewing the [same-sex] announcement at Prince Alfred Park with a friend, I went home and decided to fly a rainbow flag outside my apartment to celebrate what the LGBTI community had achieved.
“Soon before I left home to join the celebrations on Oxford Street, I was confronted outside my home by my neighbour Julie Passas, who also happens to be the Deputy Mayor of the Inner West Council. She demanded that I remove the flag because it was offensive to her culture and religion.
“After standing my ground and telling her that I would not take it down, Passas shouted for the whole apartment complex to hear that only “until [I] could breastfeed and have children”, should I be afforded the right to marry.”
Liberal Councillor Passas, 69, a retired former cleaning business and coffee shop proprietor, is the secretary of the body corporate of the housing complex in which Comensoli lives, where she herself has resided since 2013.
She denies the allegations, despite claims that Ashfield police, to whom Comensoli has levelled a formal complaint, were there to witness one of the altercations.
Although Councillor Passas didn’t respond to City Hub’s request for a comment, she told Fairfax News “He told me that I’m an old idiot and to go and get a life.”
She also told the Daily Telegraph, “The flag was as big as a bed sheet and was in breach of the complex’s strata laws which stops residents hanging material – political or otherwise – in common areas.”
“I told him you’ve got people in the complex from different culture and religions – and you have to live by the same rules that stopped me from hanging a ‘no’ banner.”
Cr Passas insisted the allegations by Comensoli were ‘completely false’, and claimed the fact that so many people commented and shared the original post on Facebook was “why you don’t get politicians taking a stand on anything these days because it’s trial by social media.”
Comensoli’s Facebook post received over 520 comments in 72 hours, overwhelmingly supportive.
One of those who commented was Inner West Council Mayor Darcy Byrne; two hours after the post went public.
However, Councillor Byrne was the one responsible for granting the office of Deputy Mayor to Cr Passas after the September 9 Local Elections, in return for her support for his mayoral candidacy.
The deal struck between Labour and the Liberal Party that put Councilor Passas in power, despite the Liberals being a minority party in the 15-seat Inner West Council, had the five Greens and two of the three Independents fuming that they had been marginalized.
Byrne wrote to Comensoli, “Dear Daniel, I am very sorry to hear about this. The conduct you describe is by any measure unacceptable. You are able to make a complaint through the Council’s General Manager. While I would have no legal role in that investigation I can commit to ensuring that this would be taken seriously and dealt with properly.
“I am very proud that in the past 2 months we have established the newly elected Inner West Council as the most pro civil rights local government in the history of our area including adopting my policies of campaigning openly for the YES campaign, becoming the first Council in Australia to open our town halls free of charge for same sex marriages and opening Australia’s first LGBTIQ Pride Centre in the Inner West (St Peters Town Hall is a possible location). Here is the link to my post earlier this week condemning intimidatory behaviour from a Christian vigilante group. I have been receiving some pretty vile messages since myself.”
Despite Councillor Byrne’s suggestion that a formal complaint be issued to the inner West Council, he received a lot of angry replies from people accusing him of knowing Councillor Passas’s proclivity for confrontation. This included a Ken Oath who said, “You knew exactly who you were installing as Deputy Mayor in yr [sic] abysmal deal with the Libs to freeze out the Greens and independents. Passas is notorious in political circles. She has decades of atrocious form.”
Between 21 February 2013 and 26 May 2015, Councillor Passas breached several clauses of the Council’s Code of Conduct at a variety of Council meetings, including refusing to abide by the Mayor’s procedural rulings and being disruptive. This eventuated in three months disqualification from holding civic office.
For example, in February 2014, Ashfield Mayor Lucille McKenna ejected Councillor Passas twice from two separate Ashfield Council meetings – which pre-date Ashfield’s forced amalgamation with the Inner West Council – both of which she initially refused to leave, shouting from the public gallery.
The Mayor stated Councillor Passas brought the Council into disrepute, disrespected the Chair and compromised the order of the meeting.
Councillor McKenna was then quoted in the Inner West Courier, “It’s extremely difficult to function with that level of yelling, continual interjecting, continual focus on herself rather than issues on hand, continual bringing up of issues that are not relevant or that have been resolved in a previous meeting (or) continually trying to interrogate the staff.
“The reason that we have to take action is that she just makes council meetings unbelievably testing and trying for everybody involved.”
The following year, on 24 March 2015, Councillor Passas was formally censured by Ashfield Council for a breach of their Code Of Conduct and ordered to read an unqualified apology to a staff member, the council and the community for ‘inappropriate’ behaviour.
“I, Councillor Julie Passas, hereby publicly acknowledge that my interaction with a
council staff member at the Orpington and Elizabeth Street site on 20 November 2014 constituted a breach of clauses 3.1(e), 3.3 and 6.7 (a), (e), (g) of the Model Code of Conduct for council officials.
“In particular, I acknowledge that my behaviour constituted intimidation, harassment and verbal abuse and was a failure by me to treat that council staff member with respect.”
On Friday 13 March Cr. Passas stuck masking tape over her mouth and stood outside the town’s Civic Centre with a placard proclaiming she was being ‘gagged’ by fellow councillors “to stop me asking questions on your [ratepayers] behalf.”
Passas failed to attend the March 24 Council meeting where she was expected to apologise, and at the following meeting on April 21, she refused to read the written apology and began to read her own statement until she was evicted from the chambers for the third time that year.
“They think I need anger management,” Cr. Passas addressed the councillors. “If I didn’t already have anger management they wouldn’t be here.”
Councillor Passas is listed on the Inner West Council’s website as being a member of the Planning and Environment Committee, Works and Services Committee, the Civic Centre Redevelopment Committee and, curiously, given her publicised outbursts, the Ashfield Youth Committee.
When City Hub approached the Inner West Council for comment, a spokesperson replied, “Council has received a formal complaint regarding the incident, which has been referred to Council’s independent ombudsman for review.
“As the matter is before the ombudsman, it is inappropriate for anyone from Council to comment further.”
Comensoli’s Facebook post was shared over 640 times. Among those who shared the post was Pauline Lockie, Independent Councillor for Stanmore on the Inner West Council, who lost the Inner West Mayoral election to Councillor Darcy Byrne by one vote.
Cr. Lockie told City Hub, “I would be concerned about the suitability of any Councillor to continue to hold office if they were found to have subjected residents to abuse or harassment.”
The allegations of homophobic abuse come a week after two ‘gay-friendly’ wall murals in Sydney’s inner-west were vandalized by Christian supporters of the unsuccessful No vote in the national plebiscite on same-sex marriage. 61.6 per cent of Australians voted ‘Yes’ to allow same-sex couples to marry.
On Tuesday 28 November, a series of conservative amendments to dilute the Same-Sex Marriage Bill in the wake of the national plebiscite were voted down by large margins in the Senate. The amendments, including legal protections for people who don’t believe in same-sex marriage or think gay relationships are wrong, and the right for all celebrants to refuse to solemnise gay weddings on religious or conscientious grounds, was defeated by a powerful coalition of The Greens, Labor, Derryn Hinch, the Nick Xenophon Team, plus a number of government senators.