By ALLISON HORE
Inner West mayor, Darcy Byrne, is calling on members of the Liberal party to disavow a homophobic councillor and not endorse her as a candidate in the upcoming local council elections.
Councillor Julie Passas, who has served for almost two decades, was found guilty of “unlawful homosexual vilification” in 2019, and ordered her to pay $2,500 in compensation to her neighbour. Now, Mayor Byrne is calling for the Liberal party to oppose her candidacy in the September council elections.
“I call on Gladys Berejiklian, Dominic Perrottet and the State Director of the Liberal Party to intervene today to cancel Councillor Passas’ nomination as a Liberal candidate,” he told the Inner West Independent.
“No-one who homosexually vilifies their neighbour should be in public office in the Inner West or anywhere else.”
Mr. Byrne said as well as flying in the face of the progressive values of the Inner West, the “beating heart of Sydney’s LGBTIQ community,” her behaviour goes against the NSW Liberal party’s new code of conduct, which was revealed in early March.
“The NSW Liberal Party recently adopted, with great fanfare, a new Code of Conduct that has a zero-tolerance approach to vilification of any kind,” said Mayor Byrne.
The Civil and Administrative Tribunal’s ruling against Ms. Passas was over an incident in November of 2017 where she asked her neighbour, Daniel Comensoli, to remove a rainbow flag he had hung from his balcony in the Ashfield town house complex they both lived in.
According to Mr. Comensoli, Ms. Passas said the flag was “offensive to [her] culture and religion” and said he should not have the right to marry until he “could breastfeed and have children.”
The attack continued the next day, and Mr. Comensoli made a formal complaint to police about her “distressing” behaviour. When police visited Ms. Passas’s home she was overheard telling officers “the rainbow flag was as offensive as the flag of ISIS.”
Mr. Comensoli said Ms. Passas’s behaviour was at odds with the Inner West council’s moves to strengthen its support of the LGBTQI+ community.
“The Council recently resolved in a meeting to identify options that will strengthen relations with the LGBTI community and actively promote the inner west as a safe, positive and friendly place for them,” he wrote on Facebook at the time.
“Passas’s behaviour fails to embody these measures in support of the LGBTI community.”
Litigation and disruption
Directly after the attack, the Inner West Council took no action against Ms. Passas as they determined she was acting as a private citizen. At the time, Ms. Passas was deputy mayor of the council, a role which she had been granted in September 2017 in a deal which ensured Mr. Byrne the mayorship.
Mr. Byrne said while he knew Ms. Passas was “controversial and combative” at the time she was selected as deputy mayor, she had no known record of “homosexual vilification.”
He added he was also unaware of Ms. Passas’s history of disruptive behaviour in the pre-amalgamation Ashfield council.
In January 2017, Ms. Passas was barred from holding public office for 3 months after refusing to leave the council chamber on 12 different occasions when she was ejected for breaches of the Code of Meeting practice.
Ms. Passas’s legal troubles as a councillor go all the way back to 2003, when she was ordered to pay $100,000 in legal costs to then-Ashfield mayor, Mark Bonano. Ms. Passas sought a Personal Violence Order against the mayor but her application was rejected by the Local Court. Under appeal, the decision was upheld by the District Court.
Most recently, in July 2020, Passas was found guilty of defaming Robert Balzola, a fellow Liberal Party Member, and ordered to pay a fine of $11,213. At a Liberal party AGM in 2016, she claimed Mr. Balzola was a “criminal” who “beats his wife.”
Motion against mayor
But some critics of the mayor have questioned the timing of his call to have Ms. Passas disendorsed.
In the April 13th council meeting, Ms. Passas was due to move a motion calling for Mr. Byrne to step down over ongoing performance concerns. These included his controversial move to refer his own council staff to the auditor general’s office over their handling of the renovations of the Dawn Fraser baths in Balmain. Mr. Byrne is also currently under investigation by the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal.
Ms. Passas’s motion was unable to be discussed as the council meeting was forced to be adjourned. In a discussion about aquatic center fees, Ms. Passas was interjecting and being disruptive. Councillors voted for her to be removed, but she refused and said council should “call police on [her]” if they wanted her out.
Mr. Byrne rejected the idea he was disavowing Ms. Passas purely in relation to her motion against him.
He said the timing of his call was related to the NSW Liberal Party’s new Code of Conduct, as well as the upcoming local council elections.
He added he believed Ms. Passas’s motion to have him removed was motivated by his vocal criticism of the NSW Liberal party’s handling of the community grants fund.
“She is seeking to have me replaced by Councillor Macri, who is aligned to the Liberal Party, because she doesn’t like having a Mayor who speaks out against the shocking rorts committed by the Liberal Government in NSW,” he said.
New code of conduct
Mr. Byrne said many members of the Liberal party recognise Ms. Passas’s history of homophobia and disrupting council is “embarrassing and unacceptable.”
“There should be no place for homosexual vilification in the Liberal Party or any mainstream party,” he said.
The NSW Liberal Party President, Philip Ruddock, said that a lot of work went into the development of the new code of conduct, which includes a “robust framework governing behaviour and a complaints resolution process to ensure that behaviour that falls short of the standards set out in the Code is dealt with appropriately.”
“There is no doubt that harassment and assault are completely unacceptable in any circumstances,” said Mr. Ruddock.
However, Mr. Byrne said the Code of Conduct would be meaningless if they re-endorsed Ms. Passas, who has been found guilty of defamation and vilification, as a Liberal party candidate.
“If Councillor Passas is renominated by the Liberals, then their Code of Conduct is not worth the paper it is written on.”