‘Fix your fences first’

A BITTER and long-running dispute between Wellington Shire Council and a Dargo farmer over his wandering stock is one step closer to resolution, after a Sale magistrate told the cattle owner to “fix his fences”.

Former shire councillor Keith Mills has had an ongoing battle with the council over an allegedly misaligned boundary fence, and has had stock impounded on five previous occasions after they were found on neighbouring properties.

Mr Mills bought the property in 2000 and raised the issue of the discrepancy between the easement and a roadway that runs through his property with shire officers in 2006.

Representing himself on four charges relating to wandering stock, Mr Mills told the court on Wednesday that he was seeking mediation with the council to determine whose responsibility it was to repair the fences, and to clarify boundary alignment.

He said council fines and the impounding of his stock had so far cost him more than $25,000 and he was unable to afford the new fences because the council had “gone back” on a promise to reimburse him when the confiscated stock were sold “at well below their value”.

But Magistrate Simon Zebrowski told him that the court did not have the jurisdiction to order mediation, and that Mr Mills risked spending the rest of his life coming before the court on cattle trespassing matters if he didn’t fix his fences.

“In the meantime the whole thing gets complicated because your cattle keep wandering,” he said.

Mr Mills said he had at one stage put up some new fencing using a council boundary map he believed was official, but was then “criticised” by the chief executive over placement of the fences.

Magistrate Zebrowski said Mr Mills had been “very reasonable” about an issue that was clearly frustrating for all involved, but that he had to secure his property first before he sought civil restitution, and not to go to court “on principle”.

“Once you start conflating civil and criminal matters you start getting into hot water,” he said.

The Impounding of Livestock Act 1994 (the Act) makes it an offence for a person to allow livestock to wander at large, or to fail to adequately confine livestock to a property.

The magistrate set the contest hearing to September 3 to give Mr Mills time to make the repairs.

The solicitor representing Wellington Shire Council said that if the fences were fixed before the September contest hearing, he would recommend to the council that mediation was offered to try to resolve the other issues.