MidCoast Council – The Verdict!

Speakers at “No Confidence in Council” rally

The front page of last month’s Manning Community News featured an article which attracted much interest and appreciation. Professor Brian Burdekin AO (Australia’s first Federal Human Rights Commissioner and author of the 1989 report on youth homelessness that so shocked the nation, and an enduring champion for the vulnerable worldwide) spoke on the importance of local government in our lives and the significance of transparency; and through that prism, public accountability which either builds confidence, hope and trust in our institutions, or  disappoints and raises mistrust.

The response from the community to this piece was quite extra-ordinary, we ran out of papers in days, and the phone calls and emails were all in support of what Professor Burdekin had to say. 

Since that article was published we have viewed and reviewed the conduct of MidCoast Council, and a number of the Councillors (and staff), and it seems nothing has really changed. Just when you think it couldn’t get any worse they surprise you with something even more shocking.

Over 300 residents at the No Confidence in Council rally at the Council chambers

The Bight Cemetery

What a monumental blunder of extraordinary proportions. Over sixty grave stones were laid down. Facebook comments have described the act as criminal, desecration, vandalism, and an endemic institutional failure, and we could go on.

Council crisis management of this debacle has been poor at best. 

For the August 28 Council Meeting Cr Peter Epov submitted a well crafted comprehensive Notice of Motion which included a call for a full and transparent public inquiry into the events which would have gone a long way towards ameliorating the situation, but it was roundly defeated 6 votes to 3. Those against were Cr D West, Cr K Smith, Cr B Christensen, Cr L Roberts, Cr T Fowler, Cr K Hutchinson.

A month later at the 25 September Council Meeting, Cr Kathryn Bell moved a similar Notice of Motion calling for the publication of the Investigation Report to Councillors and for a modified version to be made available to the public. 

After a rather tense and heated debate the motion was passed 9 votes to 1. Opposing the Motion was Cr Brad Christensen.

Rescission Motion

Just when the dust had settled, and some common sense had prevailed on the Bight Cemetery, the Minutes of that Council Meeting were published and it appears that three Councillors, Pontin, Roberts and Hutchinson (who on the day, left the Council Meeting immediately after the mayoral elections and did not participate in the debate on Bell’s Motion) have lodged a Rescission Motion calling for the Resolution to be overturned. This means no action can be taken to make a report available until after the 23 October Council Meeting when the Rescission motion is debated.

This will now only re-energise the cries of a cover up and protecting the culprits.

Livestreaming of Council Meetings.

In 2017 the NSW Government foreshadowed that as a transparency and accountability measure the webcasting / live streaming of Council Meetings would be mandated. In 2018  the requirement for webcasting was passed into law. 

At the 11 September meeting of Council Cr Peter Epov moved a Notice of Motion calling for a report from the General Manager which would outline the costs and the methodology required to introduce visual broadcasting (including the option of live streaming) of all meetings of the Council commencing from the first Meeting in February 2020. This was defeated 9 votes to 2. Those against were: 

Cr D West, Cr K Smith, Cr B Christensen, Cr L Roberts, Cr D Keegan, Cr J McWilliams, Cr T Fowler, Cr K Hutchinson.

Is there a voting pattern emerging?

Between August and September Cr Peter Epov has asked in the public interest a series of Questions on Notice of the General Manger at Council Meetings including on the Forster Civic Precinct, Staff Superannuation Late Payments, Council’s IT system, the Masters Office Centralisation, Council Staffing, Video Broadcasting of Council Meetings. 

Questions on Notice is a mechanism to encourage transparency and public accountability.

Regrettably  some of the answers to his questions could be best described as evasive and it has now been revealed that in several instances the General Manger has refused to answer some of those questions publicly.

What is particularly concerning is there now appears to be a move to limit the number of questions a Councillor may ask and the number of Notices of Motion that a Councillor may move at any one meeting.

We understand the General Manager has now written to the Office of Local Government seeking “clarification” as to how many Questions on Notice and Notices of Motion can be placed before Council by any one Councillor at a Council Meeting. Why don’t they want to answer a councillor’s questions? 

Council’s code of Meeting Practice states that Councillors can ask, submit 3 Questions on Notice and 3 Notices of motion – totalling six, which has been the practice.

It was revealed at the 25 September Council Meeting that Cr Epov has been advised that he can only ask a total of three,  being a combination Questions on Notice and Notices of Motion.

Cr Epov sought a report from the General Manager to place the clarification from the office of Local Government on the public record. After a tense and at times a heated debated on this occasion the Motion was successful 7 votes to 3. Those against were Cr B Christensen, Cr L Roberts Cr J McWilliams.

Financial Administration

Council’s financial administration woes continue as Director of Corporate Services did not provide Council with the General Purpose Financial Reports for Mid-Coast Council for the period 1 July 2018 to 30 June 2019 nor the Special Purpose Financial Reports for Mid-Coast Council for the period 1 July 2018 to 30 June 2019. 

The Reports are usually submitted to Councillors for review and the granting of the authority for the Mayor and Deputy Mayor to sign on behalf of the Council, before they are submitted to the NSW Audit Office for the conduct of the 2018/19 Audit.

The failure to do this suggests that Council is continuing to have major problems with its multi-million dollar IT system Tech 1.

The Tech 1 system had been operating quite successfully at MidCoast Water for a number of years, but rather than using the skills and resources of the MidCoast water staff, many of who have now left or moved on to very senior positions in much larger corporations, Council administration decided to buy a new licence at a much higher cost than what MidCoast water had been paying. 

 Initially the system was scheduled to be operational by March 2018 then July 1 2018, then it was postponed to July 2019 to ensure that it would be fully functional and effective. Now it appears that it is still not functional, nor will it be fully functional for some time judging from the Answer to Questions on Notice provided by Mr Embry. Perhaps the rather unexplained departure of the Council’s  longstanding IT manager may have something to do with this?

It also appears that Councils IT issues have also spread to the payment of creditors and to superannuation funds for the staff.

In answers to Questions on Notice placed by Cr Peter Epov the Director of Corporate Services has replied as follows:

Has Council made contributions to Staff superannuation on time and to schedule?

Yes 

Is it correct that no contributions have been made for over 3 months?

No. (All Mr Embry answered.) 

Will Council be providing compensation for the loss of interest on superannuation?

N/A contributions have been made as required. 

Has Council notified all its staff of this situation? 

The General Manager regularly keeps staff informed on various operational matters by various means including email, Council intranet, and face to face meetings.

The Manning Community News has been contacted by a number of current Council employees who have asked that their names not be revealed claiming that their superannuation has had not been paid into their accounts for three months.

We have also been advised that Council has now informed some staff that there was problem, but they have attributed that to the “superannuation clearing house” and not to Council’s IT system – rather strangely, it all seemed to work quite well before Council went live on 1 July with the new system, after which super payments stopped being deposited in to staff accounts. 

Council Re-Votes $46 Million

One of the most startling things to come out of Council’s most recent meeting is that Council had failed to complete $46 million worth of projects by 30 June 2019. 

In fairness, a re-vote of projects at the end of the financial year is not uncommon in local government, but $46 Million does suggest some serious management issues. 

The restructure by the General Manger and the reduction in the number of directors, the pre-occupation with adventurous projects like Masters and the Forster Civic Precinct have to detract any number of key managers and executives from their core business responsibilities.

And clearly questions have to be asked as to whether Council has the appropriate leadership at the required level for a Council of this size, four times the level of what many of the current directors have worked with.

This $46 million demonstrates a very serious failure in service delivery.  To make things even worse is that in the 2019/20 financial year of which three months have already elapsed, Council has a further $82 million dollars in infrastructure projects to deliver, so this raises serious questions of capacity to deliver.

Readers would be reminded that Council previously had a Director of Planning and a Director for Water, who were extinguished by our rather, perhaps inexperienced General Manager in the restructure.

Mayoral Elections

In July, Councillor Bell put forward a Notice of Motion that a referendum be held to determine whether the community or the Councillors elect the Mayor.  The Motion was defeated 8 votes to 2. Councillors who voted against the Motion were: Cr D West, Cr K Smith, Cr L Roberts, Cr D Keegan, Cr C Pontin, Cr T Fowler, Cr K Hutchinson.

On 25 September the Mayoral election was contested  by two candidates, Cr David West and Cr Kathryn Bell. Cr West was re-elected Mayor receiving 7 votes whilst the other candidate Kathryn Bell received 4 votes. 

In a rather strange and perhaps politically naïve twist Cr Fowler moved that an open ballot be taken rather than the usual secret ballot. This then has allowed the public to see who supported Cr West as Mayor. Those that voted for Cr West were: Cr D West, Cr K Smith, Cr B Christensen, Cr L Roberts, Cr C Pontin, Cr T Fowler, Cr K Hutchinson,

Those that voted for Cr Bell were Cr D Keegan, Cr P Epov, Cr J McWilliams and Cr K Bell.

Deputy Mayor

In the Deputy Mayoral race there were also two candidates, Cr Kathryn Bell and Labor’s Cr Claire Pontin.

Cr Pontin was elected 8 votes to 3.

Those that voted for Cr Pontin were: Cr D West, Cr K Smith, Cr B Christensen, Cr L Roberts, Cr C Pontin, Cr T Fowler, Cr K Hutchinson Cr D Keegan.

No Confidence Vote

The matters raised in this article and many, many others clearly support why there is such as strong feeling against this Council. Any reasonable person would have to admit that things have to be pretty bad for several hundred people to be signing a No Confidence Motion in MidCoast Council and a large contingent turn up to the meeting to express their displeasure.

Rather than looking to provide transparency and accountability, to build confidence and trust within the community, it appears the administration is hell bent on alienating as many people as possible.

As an observer, present to receive a plaque from the Mayor on the occasion of my Order of Australia Award, I found the whole debacle of “debate” distressing and unedifying in the extreme. The public speakers were barely acknowledged and whatever they had to say, barely noted it seemed. 

The open election of the Mayor sailed through without incident – Nothing to see here folks. No surprises. Done and dusted. Amen.

We live with gritted teeth through another term. Like rain, we pray for a change.

Editor Di Morrissey receives her plaque commemorating her Order of Australia (AM) from Mayor West

DM

Related Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *