Letter to the Editor, 

In response to  “Why I Opposed the MCC Budget!” by Cr Peter Epov.

Dear Editor,

Running our region is a business. We can’t let it fail.

Last year, I made a 7-page submission on the 2020 budget, delivery/ops and cultural plan, much of which mirrored Cr Epov’s article for this following year. Nothing materially changed in the time between, it seems.

It’s tiresome to write this, repeating concerns, wasting time. I at least got a laugh at the audio from the 28 April 2021 MidCoast Council meeting. When Cr Epov raised the issue of presenting an incomprehensible draft budget to the public, Mayor West stated that the budget draft is just that – a draft – and therefore did not need to be complete or up to any particular standard.

Inviting the public to review massive documents that aren’t up to a standard of exhibition, then ignoring the submissions and moving forward each year, is not much of a submission process. 

There are a few inferences in the mayor’s attitude and that of the other councillors:

1.  The council does not need to present a transparent, functional budget/plan, instead relying on the public to pull them up on any mistakes.

2.  The responsibility therefore lies with the rate-paying community.

3.  When someone does make a submission pointing out fundamental issues with the documents on public exhibition, the council will listen and act on the submission, thereby updating a ‘draft’ into a final, complete, actionable and measurable plan.

There are a few problems in the mayor’s attitude and that of the some other councillors:

1.  The council should in fact be presenting a budget/plan as close to the intended final version as possible.

2.  Most ratepayers are too busy with jobs, families and life’s struggles to pour through massive council documents and write submissions – that is if they even hear about the public submission process. (In Randwick City Council, I’ve seen huge ads on key bus-stops promoting their council’s public documents and submission invitations. It’s great to see community consultation taken so seriously.)

3.  When someone does bother to make a submission, such as myself, it is disregarded, wrongly put in the late pile appendix, responded to only in the briefest strokes until followed up, and was even the catalyst for one councillor to tell me never to contact them again. 

Again, the points I made mirror much of what Cr Epov wrote – no correlation between the budget and the delivery/ops plan, not following the integrated reporting and planning framework, little use of S.M.A.R.T. objectives, and lack of transparency in budget lines and costings. These fundamental issues have not been addressed, despite the public submissions.

To support these points, the NSW Audit Office published its Report on Local Government 2020 on 27 May 2021. It included several high-risk findings against financial reporting, record keeping, IT, asset valuations, lack of quality reviews, evidence, and rationale… and this was for 2018-19, as council “submitted draft financial statements for audit on 16 October 2019, one month after the scheduled audit start date… The financial statements contained numerous errors and disclosure deficiencies.” (4.2 Financial reporting) 

It is not clear that council has actioned meaningful improvements in the two years since.

Cr Epov also raised a question regarding the GM salary increase. West said council doesn’t decide the GM’s salary, and that the decision falls to him based on the ‘industry’ / expert recommendations, without being specific beyond the fact that amalgamation occurred several years ago, making the job harder. 

This is a fair point, but it requires evidence of the industry/performance review and aforementioned expert recommendations. The Guidelines for the Appointment and Oversight of General Managersstate that discretionary increases require a formal performance review and a governing council vote. 

The lack of transparency is a concern that the mayor’s comments simply magnify.

To council and executive, please want to do the job properly – or step aside. Or at least don’t bother putting things on public exhibition if it’s just to tick another box. If there are issues raised about key management plans affecting the entire region, consistently, year on year, then please address those issues. 

Listen, and act, for the long-term sake of the community you represent.

Kieran J. Hennessy

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