‘We are not the guilty party’: former Mayor hits out at council
Dar-Alawda president puts his side of the story in Montfort Park sagaMark Phillips
MONTFORT Park is a small, non-descript pocket of land in a semi-industrial area of Brunswick barely large enough for a basketball court. Passing it by, most people would not give it a second glance.
But this site – sometimes also known as Montford Park – has been the subject of an epic legal saga that has inflamed passions and still may have several more twists and turns before it is over.
A dispute over public access to the park that began with a few young families wanting to use its basketball court has ended up all the way in the Victorian Supreme Court. Tens of thousands of dollars of legal fees have been spent by both sides as Merri-bek Council has sought to reclaim ownership of the land from its occupants, the Dar-Alawda (Wendel Street) Community Centre, for breaching the conditions of its sale in 2004.
The saga has lasted more than five years and is still ongoing with Dar-Alawda seeking to be heard by the Court of Appeal after losing its Supreme Court case in July.
Anthony Helou, the president of Dar-Alawda — an organisation he co-founded in 1988 for the Arabic-speaking community — insists Dar-Alawda is the victim of a grievous injustice.
In a lengthy interview with Brunswick Voice, Helou – a former three-time Mayor of the City of Moreland (now Merri-bek) – claimed the dispute over the park was part of a “vendetta” to oust his organisation from Brunswick.
“We are not the guilty party, we are the people that should be rewarded for what we’ve done to the community over the years, you know, and not only to the Arabic speaking community, the community in general,” he said.
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Under the orders by Justice Richards, Dar-Alawda was required to hand ownership of Montfort Park and a former Scout hall which is also part of the property back to Merri-bek Council on September 22. In return, the council would pay Dar-Alawda $579,500 for the property, which it purchased from Moreland Council for $100,000 in 2004.
That has been put on hold at least until there is a ruling on whether Dar-Alawda can appeal the Supreme Court decision.
Merri-bek Council declined to comment, citing the ongoing court case.
The legal saga arises from conditions attached to the sale of the land in 2004.
Dar-Alawda (which means “welcome home” in Arabic) had been based in the former Scout hall next door to Montfort Park since about 1988 when Helou established the community centre as somewhere Arabic-speaking migrants could meet and socialise, play games and learn new skills. Born in Lebanon, Helou himself came to Australia in the early 1970s without speaking any English, which he learnt once he settled in Brunswick.
He speaks with pride about how community volunteers worked long hours renovating the building, including removing asbestos from its roof, rewiring it, putting in a new kitchen and toilets, and reflooring it. Today, the building includes a games room, a 3000-plus book library, and a large multi-purpose community centre. Photos and display cabinets are reminders of life in Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and other parts of the Middle East.
“If you would want to build something like this, it will cost the council over one million and a half to $2 million dollars,” Helou said. “Don’t forget we are a community centre, not-for-profit, we have volunteers and we contribute heaps of unpaid members to come and volunteer and maintain [it] … and not even the council contribute one cent.”
Helou was still a councillor when Montfort Park was declared surplus to council requirements, but says he always excused himself from negotiations to avoid any conflict of interest.
Contrary to what some local residents say, Helou claims the land had been neglected for some time and was not used by the community. He has photographs that show long, unkempt grass and abandoned furniture dumped on the land.
According to Helou, Dar-Alawda did the council a favour by taking Montfort Park off its hands for $100,000 with a commitment to transform a derelict parcel of land into a basketball and volleyball court that could be used by the entire community.
The commitment to turn the land into a community resource was enforceable through a section 173 agreement, a common form of legal contract used by councils to set out conditions or restrictions on the use or development of land.
The section 173 agreement stipulated that Dar-Alawda had to construct a basketball court on the land and to allow public access to it. If Dar-Alawda defaulted on these conditions, the council was entitled to take action to recover the property.
“[People] keep saying they bought it very cheap, under value and so on, but the main beneficiaries are the council,” Helou says.
Helou says Dar-Alawda spent several hundred thousand dollars concreting the land, erecting basketball goals and on other improvements. Although the majority of the work was completed by 2012, he says public access was delayed by negotiations for public liability insurance.
As for a contentious three metre tall fence around the park, Helou says that was a requirement of the council to prevent stray balls going onto the surrounding roads.
Helou says the placement on the wall of an adjacent factory of a sign outlining conditions of public use — another point of contention because it was obscured by a tree — was also at the council’s instructions.
Action by the council to regain ownership of the land has its origins in 2015 after some local residents complained that they were being shut out of using the park.
Attempted mediation of the dispute was unsuccessful, and after receiving a petition with 481 signatures, in March 2020 the council issued Dar-Alawda with a notice of default. In December that year commenced legal action to repurchase the land for $579,500.
In response, Dar-Alawda took the matter to the Supreme Court, which heard the case over five days in May this year.
Helou maintains Dar-Alawda has never sought to prevent the public from using Montfort Park. He says players from the nearby indoor soccer centre often use the court to warm up before a match.
But Justice Richards found that Dar-Alawda’s requirement that residents become “open space members” of the organisation prevented them from having access to the court. She said applications for membership were never processed or were ignored.
Helou says the membership system was a requirement of the council and of Dar-Alawda’s insurers, and he disputes whether any formal applications have ever been made.
He is in possession of a 2003 document on a council letterhead that sets out the 11 rules for public access to the open space, which include that bookings are essential, and that residents can become an “Associate Member” which would then entitle them to apply to use the basketball court for a fee.
“The gate is always open,” he said. “We never kick [out] anyone who comes to play, or kick the ball or you know, use the court for any reason or game … We will never, ever, stop people using the facility or the park.
“But can I go to the Town Hall, and walk in and invite my friends to come and play cards? There has to be a mechanism, there has to be a process to do that.”
Helou claims the legal action is the result of an orchestrated campaign against Dar-Alawda by a small group, including the Brunswick Greens. He says he was upset by comments by recent Councillor Mark Riley which suggested Dar-Alawda was no longer welcome in Brunswick.
“We have a very good relation with our neighbours here, except some residents from Henkel Street. And I would like to say, since we’ve been here, the only time face-to face we met with them was in a meeting in June 2019. No one approached us to become a member. But it was attack after attack in the media.”
Riley responded by email that the dispute is of Dar-Alawda’s making.
“Dar Alawda [sic] have never been seen to follow the letter of the agreement to provide locals access to this space,” he said.
“If anything they have actually worked in the other direction to obstruct and obfuscate!
“It’s clear to me that they have never worked, under former Cr Helou’s leadership, in the spirit of that agreement. That’s for sure and the judge’s ruling would back that up 100%.”
If its appeal is unsuccessful, Dar-Alawda faces the very real prospect of losing not only the park, but its buildings as well. Helou said it would be impossible for the organisation to relocate after so long in the former Scout hall.
“It’s not just taking the building, it’s taking 35 years of hard work, people who are 70 now, 35 years they were here and coming to the centre most of the time and taking that away from them.
“The whole Arabic speaking community in Victoria are very angry and upset … and what the council is doing now is to create divisions between the Arabic speaking and the rest of the community.”
A final loss is also likely to see Dar-Alawda found responsible for all parties’ legal costs.
A date is yet to be set for Dar-Alawda’s application to appeal to be heard.