Reports into the serious failings at three NSW councils have unearthed a culture of ‘petty rivalries, childish behaviour and self-interest’, says NSW Local Government Minister Gabrielle Upton.
The three independent public inquiries by the Office of Local Government investigated the goings on at North Sydney Council and the former Auburn and Murray Shire councils and were tabled in NSW Parliament last week.
Two of the investigations involve councils which no longer exist. Auburn was fractured during forced council mergers in May last year and is now part of Cumberland Council and Parramatta Council. Murray Shire Council merged with Wakool Shire to form Murray River Council.
The inquiries were set in motion by former NSW Local Government Minister Paul Toole and uncovered questionable planning decisions; toxic relationships between councillors and councillors and staff, unco-operative witnesses and allegations of bullying and harassment.
Ms Upton said the three reports showed that some councils, mayors, councillors and staff were failing to deliver for their communities.
“For a few – it is about them – instead of what is in the community’s best interests,” Ms Upton said. “Petty rivalries, unruly and childish behaviour in council meetings and shoddy practices must be banished from our councils forever.”
Ms Upton said that the government would consider the reports’ recommendations in greater detail and refer them to the Independent Commission against Corruption.
Auburn Council found itself under the spotlight after its former Deputy Mayor, Salim Mehajer, held a lavish wedding with four helicopters and a procession of luxury cars and persuaded the council to close local streets but it was the council’s planning decisions that kept it in the public eye.
Richard Beasley SC was tasked with finding out if some Auburn councillors, including Mr Mehajer, had made dodgy planning decision for their own financial benefit and broken the councillors’ code of conduct.
Mr Beasley made no adverse findings against any councillors but expressed his frustration that his hands were tied because he could not compel witnesses to answer questions, particularly Auburn Council’s former Executive Manager of Planning Glenn Francis, who he said played a central role in three of the planning proposals being investigated.
“One witness (possibly the most important witness summonsed to give evidence at the public hearings) extensively claimed the privilege against self-incrimination, and I ruled that he could not be compelled to answer many questions,” Mr Beasley said. “The fact that an important witness could not be compelled to answer questions about three of the four planning proposals being inquired into was unhelpful.”
Mr Beasley recommended that commissioners overseeing public inquiries be given the power to compel witnesses to answer questions.
Ms Upton said the Auburn Council inquiry found that former Deputy Mayor Salim Mehajer may have breached Local Government Act disclosure provisions, over the sale of council owned property to a company associated with him.
She said that another recommendation was made to review road closing procedures across all councils so residents could understand whether they should lodge objections.
“This is important because of the unauthorised road closures that occurred for Mr Mehajer’s over-the-top wedding reception,” said Ms Upton.
North Sydney Council
The North Sydney Council investigation centred on toxic relationships between Mayor Jilly Gibson and some of the seven other councillors and her strained relationship with the former General Manager, which left Ms Gibson isolated and council meetings fraught and unruly.
The popularly elected mayor lost the confidence of most of the other councillors early on in her four-year term and this caused problems because Ms Gibson chaired every council meeting.
“This has had the effect of locking in the conflict between the chair and the floor of meetings for the whole term,” said Tom Howard SC, conducting the inquiry.
If the mayor had been elected by councillors and the chairing of meetings rotated this would have avoided or lessened ‘significant elements of dysfunction’ on the council, he said.
During his investigation, Mr Howard uncovered “a degree of conflict and personal antipathy” which he said exceeded “ordinary robust political engagement.”
Constant conflict at the council led to ‘excessive use’ of code of conduct complaints, which cost North Sydney ratepayers and sucked up resources from the Office of Local Government.
Further conflict ensued after the mayor’s car was abandoned for three days with a flat tyre in the car park of a Crows Nest bottle shop, after which councillors voted to take away her mayoral car. Ms Gibson, who has knee problems, found it difficult to carry out her official duties after this.
He added: “conflict has, from time to time, clouded the judgment of the protagonists, diminishing their objectivity and causing them to make some poor decisions.”
Mr Howard recommended that the Local Government Act be reviewed so that when a popularly elected mayor lost confidence of the majority of councillors early on the mayor did not necessarily chair council meetings for the next four years.
While Mr Howard found that some councillors and the mayor had broken rules on council meeting procedures and breached parts of the code of conduct, he did not recommend Ms Upton suspend or dismiss the council.
Instead he recommended that the minister slap a performance improvement order on the council to ensure conduct at council meetings was acceptable, although he warned, “It is not to be expected that the underlying conflict between the mayor and some of the councillors will be resolved.”
He said there were signs that the worst conflict was over, partly after the resignation of the former General Manager, and that conduct had improved during council meetings.
Murray Shire Council
A similar situation was going on at Murray Shire before the council merged with Wakool Shire in May last year, with councillors at war with each other and some of them with the general manager.
Commissioner Anthony Hudson found constant code of conduct complaints, leaking to the press and secrecy around the General Manager’s contract. He said some councillors had neglected council service delivery, policy and resource allocation too.
Murray Shire recorded the highest code of conduct complaints of any NSW council between September 1 2014 and August 31 2015 and the 111 complaints cost the council $125,000. The General Manager also complained of being bullied and harassed by some of the councillors.
Mr Hudson uncovered ‘deep division’ and a high level of acrimony between minority and majority councillors and between minority councillors and the General Manager and he concluded that the situation was not likely to be improved.
He noted that ex-Mayor Tom Weyrich called it “a giant clash of personalities” and “a train wreck waiting to happen” and Mr Hudson did not argue with his assessment.