Shadow Minister for the Central Coast, Mr David Harris, said he had unsuccessfully called for a judicial inquiry into the conduct of the former Wyong Council on three occasions during the past two years.
Since the merger of Gosford and Wyong Councils in May 2016, the shortcomings of the former Gosford Council have been in the spotlight, but little attention had been paid to the conduct of Wyong Council, even though both former councils had been found unfit to stand alone by the NSW Government and forced to merge.
Whilst the accounting practices of the former Gosford Council were exposed to a forensic, six-month long audit process, Wyong’s books were audited by their existing auditor, Price Waterhouse Coopers. Mr Harris said that he had continued to raise questions over projects like the Chappie Pie China Time Theme Park, the University proposed for Warnervale, the proposed expansion of the Warnervale Airport, and the Amphibian Aerospace Industries proposal. He was also critical of the extent of business conducted in confi dential sessions in the former Wyong Council.
“Most of the decisions about the controversial projects were made in confi dential sessions, and at times, not all the councillors were given all the information they needed,” he said. He questioned the commissioning of consultants’ reports that were subsequently ignored by the Council if the recommendations and conclusions did not fi t the Council’s agenda. “The SDS airport report, for example, cost $200,000, and found that the Warnervale airport should be closed and the land sold, but it was dismissed out of hand,” he said.
“The expansion of the airport was not included in the NSW Government’s Regional Plan, but Council continued, and continues, to spend ratepayer’s money on its development.” Both the former Wyong Council and the current Central Coast Council under Administration, have also been criticised for not including information about the Warnervale Airport (Restrictions) Act in their call for Expressions of Interest in the future expansion of the airport. Each time Mr Harris had taken fresh information to the NSW Minister for Local Government, he had been told it was outside the jurisdiction of the Local Government Department.
“I was told that any specific allegations needed to be referred to the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) and if an allegation was less serious, the Department would refer it back to Council to investigate itself. Mr Harris said he had recently received anonymous information about the conduct of certain individuals within Central Coast Council’s hierarchy. “Because it was an anonymous tip off and the source didn’t want to go on the record because they were scared, the Local Government Minister, Ms Gabrielle Upton, said she could not do anything with it,” Mr Harris said.
“I think staff need to know that they are protected so they can come forward,” he said. The former Wyong Council was investigated for illegal tendering practices in 2009, following reports from a whistle blower, Mr Harris said. “There was a full investigation and audit, and the council was found guilty,” he said. “I had received a recommendation from the Department that the Council was to be dismissed, the ministerial announcement and the media release was ready, and then the Council did an 11th hour deal with the Minister.
“The Council argued that the appointment of a new General Manager, Michael Whittaker, should mean that they were given the time to fi x up the problem and so they were given another chance by the Minister,” he said. I n d e p e n d e n t candidates for the Wyong Ward in the Central Coast Council election, Ms Louise Greenaway and Mr Laurie Eyes, said they believed that the “poor” business decisions made by Wyong Council and continuing through the administration period, were already equivalent to an opportunity cost of at least $50 million to the local community. Mr Harris said that while the council continued to pursue business propositions that had weak business cases, other local government areas, such as Lake Macquarie, were attracting new industry and development. He said the locking up of the Coast’s best industrial land at Warnervale for activities like the airport, theme park and university, meant that the community was missing out on the jobs and economic boost that could be achieved if companies like CostCo came to the Coast, instead of overlooking this region for those working harder to attract viable businesses, such as Lake Macquarie.
Source: Interview, Aug 11 David Harris, Shadow Minister for the Central Coast Jackie Pearson, journalist