A local community group, Stop Arms Fairs in Eurobodalla Inc. (SAFE) has lodged a formal 65 page complaint with the Eurobodalla mayor, Liz Innes, alleging numerous legal and governance breaches by the Shire Council since 2012. These breaches are alleged to have occurred in connection with the council's approval of the annual HuntFest event and gun sales on public land in Narooma.
The allegations, which are fully supported by extensive evidence and documentation, some of it obtained under 'freedom of information', cover a wide range of the council's activities - with some of the more serious problem areas being
the falsification of the minutes of council meetings;
numerous failures to comply with legal requirements in the conduct of council meetings;
possibly serious integrity failures in the council's administration of its 'code of conduct' complaints system; and
a chronic and unjustifiable absence of transparency in the council's decision-making processes.
As pointed out by SAFE's president, Heather Irwin, “the NSW Ombudsman has stressed that in a constitutional democracy such as ours, members of the community must be able to expect that the conduct of public officials will be in accordance with the accepted principles of good conduct in public administration”.
“In an attempt to achieve that sort of outcome in the local government sector in this State, the Ombudsman had issued extensive guidelines for officials which set out the basic standards required of them. Our complaint documents the consistent and disturbing failure of our council officials to have met those basic standards”.
“I would emphasise that this complaint is not just some collection of unsubstantiated assertions. The allegations are thoroughly argued and extensively documented and must be properly examined by an impartial and credible investigator.
“Regardless of the attitude of any individual community member to such matters as this council's controversial decision to approve gun sales in a publicly owned facility, every community member needs to be concerned about whether or not our council officials are consistently behaving honestly, transparently and within the law when undertaking their official duties on behalf of this community.
“In my view, without significant change to this council's current attitude to transparency and due process, the resulting controversies and conflicts between the council and many community groups will continue to have an unnecessary debilitating impact on this council's capacity to properly serve the local community.” In a covering letter to the Mayor Safe have advised that the complaint is "in connection with various matters associated with the issuing of the two HuntFest licences to the South Coast Hunters Club, for consecutive periods from 1 June 2013 to 31 May 2023, Eurobodalla Shire Council (ESC) officials have (i) consistently engaged in practices and activities that have been contrary to their requirements and obligations under relevant laws, and (ii) consistently failed to take proper account of relevant State Government policies and of various instructions and guidelines issued by State Government agencies, particularly in the areas of transparency and accountability. So that the Mayor can fully appreciate the seriousness of the complaint the covering letter to her offers an overview ... as follows: Overview of the Complaint The issues, that are the subject of this complaint, have been organised into the following categories. A. Unlawful and inappropriate meeting decisions and related matters.This section contains the details of nine meetings of the ESC since June 2012 where there have been significant procedural, legal and/or integrity problems associated with the ESC's decisions on Huntfest related matters. The problems identified in this section of the complaint include breaches of the Local Government Act 1993 (the LG Act), the Local Government (General) Regulation 2005 and the ESC's Code of Meeting Practice as well as many examples of noncompliance with a range of relevant NSW government agency instructions and guidelines. Also included in this section are the details of one instance (and possibly two) of the falsification of council minutes. These details represent a chronic failure by the officials of this council to have applied due process in its formal decision-making activities. B. Secrecy and non-transparency in ESC decision-making. This section sets out some of the relevant statutory obligations that NSW councils have in relation to transparency in decision-making. It also identifies some of the key relevant policy statements, directives and guidelines that have been issued by government agencies such as the NSW Ombudsman, the Office of Local Government (OLG) and the Information and Privacy Commission (IPC). The section provides detailed commentary on a number of relevant examples of where, in respect of Huntfest related matters, the ESC has failed to undertake its activities within the legal and policy framework that is in place for the local government sector in this State. In this regard, it reveals a very disturbing pattern of behaviour by ESC officials. C. The ESC's inappropriate management of its legal advice arrangements. In this section we have (i) identified the failure by council staff to have established legal advisory arrangements that meet the objectives and standards required for public sector agencies in this State, and (ii) described the inappropriate practices of the council in its use of the legal advice that it receives. D. Inadequate and misleading advice to councillors. This section identifies the key principles and standards relating to the provision of advice to public sector decision-makers in this State. It provides examples of the serious failures by ESC staff to have adequately briefed and informed councillors in relation to various matters that were decided in respect of Huntfest related issues.The section also provides examples of the provision of misinformation to councillors. E. Non compliance with instructions and guidelines from NSW State government agencies. This section provides commentary on the general failure of council staff to have ensured that, in relation to HuntFest issues, their systems and procedures were compliant with, and took proper account of, instructions and guidelines issued by various State Government agencies. It also identifies the failure of the General Manager to have made councillors aware of the existence of important guidelines that are directly relevant to some of the matters that were before them, including certain guidelines that councillors had a statutory obligation under the LG Act to take into consideration before making formal decisions. F. Possible maladministration of the ESC's 'Code of Conduct' arrangements Outside the somewhat 'blunt instrument' of the four year local government electoral cycle, the 'Code of Conduct' process is arguably the only formal means that is often available to councillors and members of the community to seek to rectify inappropriate and improper behaviour by council officials. Such formal (publicly accessible) arrangements are, of course, essential to providing at least some balance to the otherwise significant power and financial imbalance that exists between members of the community and their local government officials.In respect of HuntFest related matters (and more generally), this section identifies aspects of the ESC's management of the 'Code of Conduct' that cast serious doubts on the integrity of the system that is in place in this shire. Copies of the complaint in full detail have been delivered to Council for distribution to all councillors.