Auburn City Council has been temporarily suspended and an independent public inquiry mounted into alleged dodgy dealings of some of its councillors, NSW Local Government Minister Paul Toole announced today (Wednesday).
The trials and tribulations of the western Sydney council and its flamboyant, controversial Deputy Mayor Salim Mehajer have finally reached crisis point, with the most damaging accusations concerning development and planning decisions.
“After careful consideration of Auburn City Council’s submission and given the serious nature of the allegations the council is facing, it is clear that it is in the public interest to temporarily suspend the council during the course of the inquiry,” Mr Toole said.
“I have not taken the decision to suspend Auburn City Council lightly. The current public inquiry is examining allegations that decisions made by the council in relation to planning and development matters. Given the inquiry’s terms of reference, I have determined that it is in the public interest to remove the councillors to ensure that no further binding decisions are made during the course of the inquiry,” he said.
“Auburn ratepayers deserve a strong council that is acting in their best interests. The only way to achieve this is for me to temporarily suspend the councillors so the inquiry can be undertaken effectively.”
Mr Toole said there would be an investigation into allegations that “a number of councillors of Auburn City Council are misusing their position to allegedly obtain significant planning outcomes for themselves, associated companies, relatives and fellow councillors.”
On January 21, Mr Toole gave the council 14 days to make a convincing case as to why it should not be suspended. It clearly failed to do so.
Mr Toole said last month: “There are ongoing concerns around some councillors’ potential conflicts of interests and it is vital that wherever these perceptions exist they are looked into, in order to protect the public’s faith in our system of local government.”
Richard Beasley SC is the Sydney silk who will be conducting the public inquiry, which is a necessary step before a council can be sacked. He will begin by establishing the inquiry’s procedures and outline the next steps. Mr Toole will then decide whether to sack the entire council, individual councillors or none of them.
Mr Mehajer has attracted a fair proportion of the heat borne by the council, beginning with his extravagant wedding in August last year, where unauthorised street closures and a Kardashian-level of self-indulgence set off a disastrous chain of events for the Deputy Mayor and for the reputation of the council he sits on.
The property developer was suspended for four months last month for failing to declare a pecuniary interest in a development where he voted to increase floorspace ratios and building height, adding $1 million to its value. The NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal that Mr Mehajer breached pecuniary interest laws on three occasions between November 2012 and December 2013.
The public inquiry is sure to put under the microscope another of the most controversial decisions recently taken by the Auburn City Council – which also involves Mr Mehajer – when the council sold a car park to a company owned by Mr Mehajer’s sister, allegedly for millions of dollars below the open market price.
Viv May, a former General Manager of Mosman Council and recently Acting General Manager of Strathfield Council has been appointed as interim council administrator during the public inquiry.
The council has been suspended under section 438W of the Local Government Act 1993, with the appointment of an interim administrator under section 438Y of the Act. Under the Act, the Minister can only suspend the whole council, not individual councillors.
Auburn Council is the subject of two of the NSW government’s merger proposals. The southern part of Auburn is slated to merge with the southern part of Parramatta and Holroyd Councils; while the northern section will merge with parts of Parramatta, Hornsby, the Hills and Holroyd Councils. Auburn councillors had initially proposed a merger with Burwood and Canada Bay.
Mr Toole said that the decision to suspend the council “will have no impact on the merger proposals relating to Auburn City Council.”