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Using in-camera meetings to bury council’s mistakes

Dr Edwin Brooks

09/09/2006  ::  922  hits
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Wagga Airport.:

SECURITY CONCERNS: Columnist Dr Edwin Brooks says there is no excuse for the delays to upgrading security at Wagga Airport.Photo:
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Following the news that Wagga Council was to be investigated, the general manager spoke on TV.  
After expressing his surprise that the investigation had been called, Mr Perram claimed that Wagga City Council was “very transparent.”  
He said the majority of its reports were in open council, the main exception being matters under “Section 10 2(a)” of the Local Government Act.
Mr Perram was presumably referring to Section 10A (2). This forbids public access to sensitive meetings of council. The sensitivities include “personnel matters involving individuals” and contractual issues where disclosure might unfairly disadvantage competitors. 
Fair enough. Confidentiality is acceptable when the intention is to protect legitimate private and commercial interests.  
Breaches of commercial-in-confidence discussions could jeopardise council’s transactions – and certainly its reputation – and even end up in court.
So far so good. But it’s hard to see the relevance of Section 10A (2) to much of what vanishes into the secret recesses of council.  
This disappearing trick happens in various ways. It’s particularly obvious when councillors vote themselves into “committee-of-the-whole,” evacuate the public gallery and turf the media onto the streets.  
It’s really the committee-of-the-black-hole, a place of great density from which no light emerges.
But there are other ways to keep mushrooms in the dark.
One example is when councillors get summoned at extremely short notice because of an alleged emergency, neither the public nor the media get told. Agenda papers get handed out at the last moment and councillors haven’t the time to digest what the bureaucracy is feeding them.
I joke not. This farce happened as recently as July 14.  
An extraordinary meeting had been summoned at 2pm, and boy was it extraordinary! 
There were no less than three alleged “matters of urgency” to grapple with, including a matter between the general manager and councillors Hay and Klemke which resulted in the GM ruling their Notice of Motion was unlawful.  
The GM later sought guidance from Council’s paid lawyers, quoted it in his support, but steadfastly refused to make the advice public.
A second matter of urgency dealt with the fall-out from the minister’s failure to give council the long-term rate variation it wanted  
Maybe this justified an urgent meeting, but it certainly didn’t excuse the agenda reaching several councillors an hour or less before the meeting started.  
Understandably Councillor Hay stormed out in protest and was quoted as saying: “It’s just what council management seems to be doing … giving us an hour to read it”.
Councillor Dale, who also received his papers late, was vastly displeased, said so with his customary eloquence, and even questioned whether it was a genuine matter of urgency.
Red Hill Road extension
The culmination of this inept handling of business came with the third matter of urgency. Out of the blue council was asked to find an additional $2.4m to complete the extension of Red Hill Road to the Olympic Highway.
 The public knew nothing about the blowout, nor, I suspect, did most of the councillors until just before the hastily summoned meeting.  
While meditating on these financial mysteries, I turned to my favourite bedtime reading book, the 2006/07 Management Plan. You may recall this was the plan which had been adopted by council just a few weeks earlier.
To my total lack of surprise the plan shed no light on what was happening. It simply compounded the mystery. On p39 it said:
“The capital program includes the Red Hill Road extension – railway line underpass at an updated estimated cost to Council of $1.725m (pre-design estimate based on advice from State Rail.) It is important to note this project is included in the list of projects in the application for special variation but only at the previous estimated cost of $1.5m. The proposed funding source for this project is borrowings and therefore any increase in the capital cost will have recurrent implications in terms of debt servicing costs from 2007/8 (additional $20k per annum).”
Note the figure. $1.725 million. More than the previous estimated cost, but still less than half the newly revised total of well over $4 million.  
The rest of the paragraph specified ongoing recurrent costs which would rise in step with capital costs.
The following day the DA broke the news of the blowout to us voters, which must have been quite a shock. An even bigger shock came when we read the following:
“Councillors yesterday voted to inject $2.4 million into the project. But after the meeting mayor Kerry Pascoe asked why the costing estimates had blown out.”
If the Mayor himself didn’t know what was going on during the debate, I deduce his fellow councillors didn’t have a clue either. Perhaps they vote on the principle that ignorance is bliss.
By now it was getting curiouser and curiouser, so I went looking for the background report which councillors were expected to digest at the meeting on July 14. It wasn’t all that easy to find, nor did it turn out to be crystal clear. I began to see why the Mayor said what he did.
Four pages long, it recommended the additional allocation of $2.4 million and also suggested where the money might be found.  
Three different funding sources were identified: Internal Loans Reserve; Supplementary AusLink Roads to Recovery Grant; and Section 94 – (Arterial Roads).
It sounded a bit like fairy gold to old hands like me, but even if my cynicism was baseless I doubt councillors had adequate time to digest the full import of the funding options which fill the second half of the report.
As for the first half, with its reasons (or excuses) for the huge increase, I find them totally unconvincing – or, to put it another way, I fail to understand why figures in the 2006/7 management plan were overturned a few weeks later.  
Why did it suddenly become a matter of urgency, given that negotiations with the Rail Infrastructure Corporation had been going on for two years already?
The obvious conclusion to draw is that the powers-that-be didn’t want the scandal to hit the fan. They tried to bury it in a suddenly convened an extraordinary meeting of which the public and the media were unaware.
What sort of planning is this?
This is only one of many similar matters which deserve detailed scrutiny by the departmental investigators. 
The time has finally come for the sort of independent and searching investigation which only the Department of Local Government has the powers to pursue.  
Fig leaf
They have the powers, which as an MP, I exercised long ago on the Public Accounts Committee in Britain, to “call for persons and papers.” Without restriction. Without the code of conduct being used a fig
leaf.  Without threats of action for defamation.
I’m sure there are many long-suffering residents of Wagga who’ll want to suggest where the searchlight – and perhaps the blowtorch - should be pointed. This is an overdue and once in a lifetime opportunity to dust the cobwebs out of city hall, and it’s now or never.   
I’m sure there’ll be no shortage of suggestions about where the investigators should look, but I throw the following into the pot:

  • The decades of fumbling and procrastination over the Equex Centre. The failure to implement expensive consultants’ reports. The failure to set priorities and take advantage years ago of a brilliant and innovative concept. The continuing willingness of council to put the blame on everyone but itself for what goes wrong, as shown a fortnight ago in the accusation thrown at the National Horse Festival about not having made a submission to a $15,000 feasibility study. As the study was completed six months ago, are we to conclude that the councillor who made the accusation needed half a year to read what was and wasn’t in it?
  • The true story of Oasis. How much did it really cost? Why did its Board of Management vanish into the night? What happened to its manager? How is the gigantic annual loss being funded? Who carries the can for these losses? Is anyone responsible, as directors come and go like the leaves in autumn? And why is the opportunity cost – the loss of interest from this investment which would have been at least a million dollars a year – never factored into the real cost of the pool?
  • Lake Albert. Memory is still fresh of the tragic-comedy last summer when it evaporated, and with El Nino bearing down on us there might be more of the same soon. Council acted too little too late, just as it is doing with the walkway. Promised documents fail to materialise, decisions are a moving feast, and pedestrians are left with a difficult choice between being hit by balls or walking on water.
  • The fire at the tip. As with the miracle of the burning bush, Council seems eternally mystified by how it happened, and to be eternally trying to put it out at vast expense. Perhaps it could be promoted as a tourist attraction.
  • Robertson Oval. Hello? Is anyone listening to the chorus of warnings about pouring money down the drain? The Management Plan 2006/7 lists $1.5 million coming from the reserves, but few in the sporting world seem wildly enthusiastic about a refurbishment which council insists is going ahead come hell or high water. Let’s hope there isn’t any high water around when the scheme gets finished.
  • Airport security, or rather the lack of security. On p19 of the final quarterly statement on the 2005/6 management plan, which went to the last meeting of council, it says under Highlights: “Finalisation of Terminal Building Extension design as per airport Security Program requirements.”   Then it says “Below Target.” Finally, under the heading “If Targets not achieved, reason,” we are told “Concept Designs completed.  Detailed Design 2006/7” And that’s all. What’s written is certainly not a reason for a delay which, five years after 9/11, is simply inexcusable.

I wish the investigators God Speed. They will need it if they’re to get through the mountain of evidence awaiting them in Wagga.

 

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