A Better Eurobodalla Presentation
A Better Eurobodalla (ABE) Presentation to the Eurobodalla Shire Council Public Forum on Tuesday 15th August 2023 – GMR23/031 Review of Bay Pavilions
Thank you for the opportunity to present to Council. I present as Co-convenor of A Better Eurobodalla (ABE), a community forum working to achieve open, accountable and responsive government in Eurobodalla.
My focus today is on agenda item GMR 23/031- Review of Bay Pavilions. ABE, along with other concerned members of the community, have taken a sustained interest in the Pavilions project, with a particular focus on its long term financial implications for Eurobodalla ratepayers.
While the 30 page consultant’s report provides a useful snapshot of the current financial problems facing the Pavilions, it does little to illuminate HOW we arrived at this parlous state or WHAT we should do to respond effectively. The report is more notable for what it omits than what it includes.
It is remarkable that the report lists only 8 “stakeholders”, with community members not represented. All of the chosen “stakeholders” either work in Council or are contracted by Council. It is therefore an internally commissioned, driven and focussed report. There is no acknowledgement that the Eurobodalla community are in fact the “stakeholders” who will be paying the wages and footing the bills for ongoing financial losses of this project.
Given the constricted pool of “stakeholders”, it is perplexing that the consultants failed to interview the 2 current Councillors who served through the entirety of the project. The only Councillor included is our current Mayor, who was elected at the tail end of this sorry saga.
Based on the limited project information contained in the report, the impression given is that it proceeded smoothly until operations commenced, when it was realised that there were financial problems. This is misleading, as the project exhibited cost blowouts and ongoing design modifications from its origins in dubious Commonwealth and State grant funding, with construction costs rising from $46 million to around $70 million – another inconvenient but important truth missing from this report. This alarming trend generated significant public disquiet, with questions and information requests being put to Council by individuals and community groups (including ABE) throughout the project. None of these community enquiries or concerns are acknowledged in the report.
It is possible that some of this community input may have been included in the “approximately 200 documents” given to the consultants, but (because the report does not include a full documentation list) it is impossible to ascertain whether these submissions have been ignored or excluded. This key omission also diminishes confidence in the eight findings which state “No evidence provided for review”, as it is impossible to ascertain what evidence was actually submitted to the consultant.
It is notable that the only business case ever publicly released for the Pavilions was a 2017 DRAFT document which specifically stated that it did not include depreciation impacts and should not be used for grant application purposes, yet this is precisely what subsequently occurred. This key governance failure is not acknowledged in the report. In fact, the Eurobodalla community is still in the dark about the updated business case utilised by Council and shared with the consultants to prepare this current report. Every community request for key information or updated assumptions around the project was rejected under the guise of “commercial in confidence”, even when this was clearly not applicable. This is another key failure ignored by the report – the words “commercial in confidence” are absent from both the report and accompanying agenda paper tabled today.
It is especially puzzling that Councillor Mayne was not consulted for this report, as he was one of the 3 Councillors who asked well-informed and now vindicated key questions at critical junctures during the project, and yet the consultants did not meet with him. The key documents listed make no mention of the official video footage of Council meetings when important community-driven questions from these Councillors were actively blocked or ignored by senior Council staff. Once again, the question arises - have these critical governance failures been just ignored? Their omission from the report tacitly implies that these officially documented public failures of process do not warrant acknowledgement or require any updated governance practices – they have just been “disappeared” into the past.
For those who may say that these past events should be ignored as we look to the future, I offer the timeless advice :
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Any record of the Bay Pavilions project which chooses not to “remember” and acknowledge these key failures of Council staff and governance processes cannot be a credible basis to guide and inform the improvements required to ensure they will not be repeated in the future.
Past actions and failures of Council cannot be ignored or excused simply because some Council staff have moved on, since many of the senior staff present during this governance debacle are still present. Council as a legal entity is morally and legally bound to take responsibility and be accountable for its decisions and behaviour, both current and past. The requirements of the NSW Model Code of Conduct set minimum conduct standards for Council officials. They are required to :
· understand and comply with the standards of conduct expected of them;
· fulfil their statutory duty to act honestly and exercise a reasonable degree of care and diligence; and
· act in a way that enhances public confidence in local government.
Council’s non-transparent conduct during the Pavilions project was not consistent with these goals.
Mayor Hatcher recently said :
“Transparency is critical for community confidence. There are important lessons to be learned from this review and decisions to be made based on the recommendations in the report.”
ABE wholeheartedly agrees with him, and believes that the Pavilions fiasco is an object lesson of the financial and social damage done when a Council fails to be open, honest and transparent with their community.
The NSW Office of Local Government (OLG) guidelines state that Councillors “are expected to represent the views of the community while making decisions in their interests; demonstrate conduct that the community expects and deserves; and plan and oversee the running of a significant and complex business.”
It is clear that the conduct exhibited by Council throughout the Bay Pavilions project was frequently at odds with each of these requirements, and therefore constitutes a serious and systemic failure of governance which must be addressed.
Today’s agenda paper recommendation to “receive and note“ the report with “consideration” being given to vaguely worded changes to Council processes at an unspecified point in the future is not commensurate with the nature and scale of the problems revealed.
ABE therefore urges Councillors as a matter of urgency to direct senior staff to prepare and publicly circulate a concrete set of draft proposals which:
i) address the key governance issues contributing to the systemic failures evident in the Bay Pavilions project, and
ii) significantly reduce the Pavilion’s recurrent financial burden on Eurobodalla ratepayers.
The review report makes it clear that significant decisions of great consequence for the Eurobodalla community must soon be made about future management of the Pavilions. The community’s confidence in Council’s ability and willingness to effectively and transparently make these decisions has been severely damaged by past events, and will be irretrievably broken if they are excluded from undertaking a meaningful role in this process.
To chart a successful course into the future, we need to understand and acknowledge how we arrived where we are today.
Thank you for your attention,
Dr Brett Stevenson
Co-Convenor, A Better Eurobodalla