A suburban street in Waratah has been the setting for an unusual neighbourhood dispute involving a local businesswoman, barking dogs, a radio personality and a council chief executive.
Billie Steele moved her Little Pistol dog-grooming studio from a shopfront in Mayfield into her Platt Street home last month, but the business soon attracted noise complaints and the attention of council staff.
Ms Steele told the Newcastle Herald on Friday that she had been talking to a council ranger in recent weeks about addressing noise and compliance issues at the property and was in the process of lodging a development application for the business.
Ms Steele, who has two dogs of her own, said she believed a complaint had come from one of her neighbours, Steve St John, a former Newcastle breakfast radio presenter and now NEW-FM general manager.
The council’s unapologetically hands-on chief executive officer, Jeremy Bath, entered the picture when he visited Platt Street on Monday night and again on Tuesday morning to judge for himself how loud the dogs were barking. He said he had dropped in again on Wednesday to talk to Ms Steele.
Ms Steele, who was not at home at the time, has CCTV footage showing Mr Bath arriving at the house at 10.08am on Wednesday and talking to one of her female employees on the footpath for about 10 minutes.
The Herald has seen the video. Mr Bath’s manner is relaxed and non-threatening, and at one point he gives the woman his business card.
“I wasn’t there,” Ms Steele said. “He said, ‘I’ve got the power to impound all dogs here and cease your business.’ He told one of my staff members that.”
Mr St John told the Herald that he and Mr Bath did not know each other, had never met and had not talked before this week. The Herald does not suggest any wrongdoing on the part of either.
Mr Bath said a councillor had passed on a noise complaint to him several weeks ago and he had referred it to council staff without knowing the identity of the complainant.
A staff member had called him on Monday night and played him a neighbour’s recording of barking dogs.
He said he had contacted the neighbour then driven to Platt Street to stand out the front of several houses to listen. He had also driven by the house on Tuesday morning on his way to work to listen again.
He said he had wanted to ensure the residents’ complaints were justified.
‘I’ve done it before and I’ll do it again’
Asked whether it was his job to visit residents involved in neighbourhood disputes, Mr Bath said: “I absolutely make no apologies for [getting] involved in issues that historically the CEO wouldn’t have got involved in, because unfortunately sometimes it takes some plain speaking and frankly some problem solving to ensure that issues are resolved.
“I’ve done it before, and I’ll do it again, but it’s always done in a professional and courteous manner.”
Mr St John said the matter was not a standard neighbourhood dispute over a barking dog but about a business which operated like “doggy day care”.
Mr Bath characterised Ms Steele’s business as a dog kennel. Ms Steel denied this and said she did not keep customers’ dogs overnight.
“I don’t want this dragging out for months and months on end,” Mr Bath said. “We’ve had a large number of neighbours make complaints in regard to it. It’s already dragged on for several weeks.”
Ms Steele said Mr Bath’s involvement in the dispute had left her feeling “strong-armed”, although she said he was not confrontational when the two spoke on the phone on Thursday.
“The CEO doesn’t linger around people’s houses waiting for dogs to bark,” she said.
Mr Bath said he had become involved merely to help Ms Steele resolve the issue by encouraging her to lodge a development application.
He flatly rejected any suggestion his involvement could be perceived as intimidating.
“If I had gone there making threats and conducting myself in an unprofessional manner, then absolutely, but no, I made it very clear that why I was there was to help the whole situation.
“I don’t for one second pretend not to be a very different style of CEO or GM for Newcastle City Council.
“I don’t have a tolerance for issues remaining unresolved for extended periods of time. I don’t have a tolerance for indecision, for people failing to make decisions … This has gone on for weeks.”