Dear Beagle Editor, Like Jim Bright (The Beagle, April 16th), the Bega Valley Shire Residents & Ratepayers Association (BVSRRA) has also had direct experience with Bega Valley Shire Council (BVSC) abusing the public purse in order to protect or advance its own interests
The association believes that government exists only to advance the best interests of its constituents & that the career interests of paid bureaucrats, elected politicians & related parties, such as service providers, are all secondary to that purpose.
In keeping with that belief, the association also believes that government at all levels has a fundamental responsibility to be as open & transparent about its activities as possible & should go out of its way to provide information, rather than using its not inconsiderable resources to try to avoid doing so.
Since its incorporation in August, 2012, the association has enjoyed what could at best be described as “mixed success” in obtaining information from Council.
At various times, Council’s responses to requests for information have been vague & unhelpful; at times simply ignoring the questions posed or providing only part or superficial responses, while requests for the simplest of information have sometimes been met with a demand from Council that the association submit a GIPA Application, along with a fee.
At its worst, Council’s effort to deny the association access to information ultimately manifested itself with Council simply refusing to respond to the association’s correspondence for a period of around 12 months up to March, 2016.
As a result of Council’s refusal to respond to correspondence during that period, the only option open to the association to try to obtain information was to submit formal GIPA Applications, at a minimum cost of $30 per application.
While it still remained open to Council to refuse to provide information requested through the GIPA process, at least it could not legally ignore such requests, as had previously been the case. In the 12 months to June 30th, 2016, the association submitted 23 GIPA Applications & incurred a total of $810.00 in processing fees.
Even then, a common tactic used by Council to frustrate GIPA Applications was to claim that the request for information would entail an unreasonable & substantial diversion of its resources ... this from a Council that can find hundreds of ratepayer-funded hours to promote the commercial interests of private property owners & developers or to promote spurious Council activities that add little or no benefit to the interests of residents & ratepayers.
Obviously frustrated by its inability to deter the association from pursuing its right to make GIPA Applications, Council initiated legal action against the association & its secretary in April, 2016, threatening to pursue action in the NSW Civil & Administrative Tribunal for a restraint order, unless the association agreed to provide a written undertaking to limit the number & nature of GIPA Applications that they would make over a two year period.
Of course, our desperate, resource-poor Council didn’t appoint a local law firm to manage its attack on the Association. No sirree, it wheeled-in the “big guns” from Sydney in the form of the law firm Maddocks who, according to its own promotional material, is in the business of providing “premium” legal services ... no doubt at a “premium” cost.
And, of course, as Council is fully aware, the association is a voluntary, community-based organisation & depends entirely on donations to underwrite its activities & is therefore hardly in a position to fund a legal stoush, while Council is free to use ratepayers’ funds to further its ends.
Fortunately for the association, there are those in our community, including highly competent & civic-minded legal practitioners, who are willing to defend the association against Council’s bullying behaviour.
Then, in the lead-up to the 2016 local government elections, Council abandoned its action without notification & without offering any explanation, possibly because members of the association had decided to stand for election to Council.
Against that background, the association wrote to Council’s General Manager, requesting confirmation of the following:
• In contacting the Association as detailed above, were Maddocks lawyers acting on the instructions of BVSC?
• If Maddocks lawyers ware acting on behalf of BVSC, who briefed Maddocks lawyers on the matter, who issued Instructions to them on behalf of BVSC & under what authority were those Instructions issued?
• If Maddocks lawyers were acting on behalf of BVSC, were any of the members of the then elected Council aware of the matter prior to the Instructions being issued?
• If any of the members of the elected Council were aware of the matter prior to the Instructions being issued, were they a party to the decision to commence the proceedings?
• If members of the then elected Council were aware of the intention to issue Instructions to Maddocks, who were those Councillors?
• What was the total of Maddocks’ costs in the matter?
In response to the association’s request, Council would only confirm that Maddocks were acting on its behalf in the matter & that all elected officials at the time were aware of Maddocks engagement to represent Council in the matter.
While the association was appalled that Council would attempt to impose restrictions on its legal right to pursue information (in particular given the circumstances giving rise to those applications) & that it was prepared to expend ratepayers’ funds to do so, it also believed that if the elected Councillors at the time (some of whom remain on Council) sanctioned the legal action pursued by Council, then they have an obligation to publicly explain the basis of their decision.
Following the 2016 local government elections, the association again wrote to Council seeking clarification as to whether the members of the elected Council were aware of its actions & also to clarify what legal costs Council had incurred in pursuing its legal action.
While Council subsequently confirmed that the elected Councillors were made aware of the planned legal action against the association, two Councillors subsequently took the trouble to publicly confirm that they had opposed the action.
Council also confirmed that its legal costs in pursuing the matter had amounted to a staggering $20,752.27.
The BVSRRA believes that Council’s purpose in threatening legal action was to intimidate, coerce & ultimately restrict the association’s legitimate legal right to pursue access to information pertaining to Council’s activities, thereby injuring the association & its ability to conduct its legitimate activities on behalf of its members.
The association believes that the fact Council can squander more than $20,000 in an attempt to restrict the association from exercising its legitimate right to examine Council’s activities is nothing short of an abuse of power & a scandalous & irresponsible waste of ratepayers’ funds.
Calls for an investigation into Council’s behaviour & the actions of those responsible have been ignored. John Richardson Secretary/Treasurer Bega Valley Shire Residents & Ratepayers Association