on accountability …

Dear Beagle Editor, It is with interest that we read in your pages of your own Eurobodalla Council being found to be in breach of the Local Government act and to learn that, your community is also challenging the Council via a continued series of Codes of Complaint directed to the Office Of Local Government that appear to clearly show a concern that Council staff are undertaking determinations outside of Council policies and the Local Government Act. We too have such difficulties and to date our protestations to higher authorities have fallen on deaf ears. Your readers might be interested in our latest Media Release on accountability …

The Bega Valley Shire Residents & Ratepayers Association (BVSRRA) believes that the main reason that local government is held in such low esteem by the general populace is due to its legal parent, the state government, treating it like a “spoilt child”.

By that we mean that those in state government who are accountable for ensuring that local government adheres to best practice standards of governance, including making every effort to conduct its affairs in an open, honest & transparent fashion, more often than not look the other way when it comes to its bad behaviour.

It is the state government that has the legislative power to control local government via the NSW Local Government Act 2009 & the NSW Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979, while also ostensibly making the third tier of government subject to a host of other regulatory constraints & requirements.

But while the state government, its responsible Ministers & their bureaucratic servants hold the power to make local government accountable, when it comes to its aberrant behaviour, they are almost always missing. And should any citizen be foolish enough to attempt to enlist their aid in bringing local government to heel & hold it accountable for its actions … well, good luck with that.

And having failed at that hurdle, should the same hapless citizen make the mistake of thinking that trying to enlist the support of the Ombudsman or ICAC might produce a better outcome … well, we reckon they’d have even less luck with that.

So, it is the BVSRRA’s view that the controllers of local government, whether elected or appointed, have come to understand that there is very little that they can’t do to abuse their power, provided they don’t do anything substantial to offend their state government enablers.

Now we realise we’ve made a couple of bold claims here, so we think it’s important to offer a few examples in support of our thesis, less our readers think we are just barking in the breeze. So here goes... Recently the BVSRRA requested the Office of Local Government (OLG) to intervene with council & require it to correct the record, following its false public claim that the Mayor, Cr McBain, had been awarded a Vice Regal Medal for Leadership by the Governor-General (this following the BVSRRA’s own attempts to have council correct the record & investigate its obvious abuse of its own Media Guidelines & Procedures). The OLG responded by acknowledging our “comments” before helpfully informing the BVSRRA that “ultimately this is a matter that you will need to resolve directly with the Council”. In March, 2016, the BVSRRA communicated with the Office of Environment & Heritage, requesting it to intervene with council following its resolution to relocate the Dr Evershed Memorial Clock Tower in Bega, without genuine justification, without bothering to consult the community & without the benefit of a Heritage Assessment. In a most disappointing response, the Office of Environment & Heritage confirmed that it was only concerned with issues with a “State heritage significance”. A month or so before the fictitious Vice-Regal Award, the Mayor was recognised as a “role model in Council & the community” by winning a category in the 2017 Ministers' Awards for Women in Local Government. The BVSRRA thought this a remarkable achievement considering that Cr McBain had only held the position of Mayor for a few months. The BVSRRA wrote to the OLG seeking details as to the criteria for the award & also confirmation as to who had nominated her for the Award. The OLG subsequently confirmed that Cr McBain had been nominated by council’s general manager, with the nomination seconded by Cr Tapscott, a fact not made public at the time. It would also seem that the other councillors were not advised of the nomination. The BVSRRA contacted the OLG & expressed the view that judgements around Cr McBain’s leadership capabilities & her achievements as an elected Council official & as Mayor would, in its view, be more properly made by her elected colleagues on Council, rather than the general manager, in particular as the Guidelines for the Appointment & Oversight of General Managers published by the Division of Local Government Department of Premier & Cabinet stipulate that “the day-to-day oversight of & liaison with the general manager” is the responsibility of the Mayor. The BVSRRA expressed the view that the nomination of Cr McBain for a Minister’s Award by the general manager was unethical, as it potentially compromises, or could appear to compromise, the Mayor in the ongoing fulfilment of her day-to-day management responsibilities for the performance of the general manager. While the OLG eventually agreed to review the nomination process for the Minister’s Awards, it confirmed that in its view, “Council is in the best position to determine if the details of the nomination should be made public”. In September, 2016, Crs Bain & Dodds were appointed as alternate council delegates on the Southern Joint Regional Planning Panel (SJRPP). The BVSRRA was surprised by their appointment, as it doubted that either councillor possessed the requisite capabilities as defined in the Planning Panels Operational Procedures. In response to the BVSRRA’s inquiry as to the councillors’ qualifications, council’s general manager confirmed that: “Cr Bain & Dodds both have knowledge & practical experience in planning matters & were deemed by fellow councillors to be the most appropriate delegates for this committee.” The BVSRRA then wrote to both Cr Dodds & Cr Bain politely asking them to confirm the basis of “your knowledge & practical experience in planning matters”. While both councillors responded to the BVSRRA’s inquiry, neither provided any information that would support the claim made by council’s general manager. The BVSRRA subsequently wrote to council’s general manager requesting her to provide the evidentiary basis for the claims she had made regarding the councillors’ qualifications. After council failed to respond to its request, the BVSRRA contacted the NSW Department of Planning who confirmed that council had provided “the personal details and expertise details of its panel members to the secretariat. At least one of these members would broadly meet the expertise criteria, however it is up to council to manage this requirement in accordance with the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979. Council must ensure that at least one of its members on the panel meets the expertise requirement.” Given council’s failure to respond to its request, the BVSRRA submitted a GIPA Application requesting the information. Remarkably council responded by claiming that the information requested “was not held by council”, which sort of made the BVSRRA wonder about the integrity of the general manager’s original claims. The BVSRRA has since submitted a GIPA Application to the NSW Department of Planning to obtain a copy of the information that it says was supplied by council detailing the qualifications necessary for Cr Dodds & Cr Bain to sit on the Planning Panel. By the time that information comes to hand later this month, more than 7 months will have elapsed since the BVSRRA made its first request to council. So much for openness & transparency!! In a recently published Media Release, the BVSRRA argued that corruption is a feature of council’s culture & detailed a long list of examples. While the BVSRRA obviously accepts that it is the responsibility of individual councillors & council employees to behave with absolute probity in carrying out their duties, the sad reality is that the state government does little, if anything, to ensure that they do. John Richardson Secretary/Treasurer Bega Valley Shire Residents & Ratepayers Association

Looking through the fence it appears all too familiar