Independent legal advice on airport sort before decision

Architect's impression of the AAI hangar and office at Warnervale AirportArchitect's impression of the AAI hangar and office at Warnervale Airport

The wishes of the elected Central Coast Councillors to reallocate the $6m budgeted on works at Central Coast Airport to other employment-generating programs may not be able to be met due to funds already spent and legal obligations to Amphibian Aerospace Industries Pty Ltd.

A report to the February 12 meeting of Council from the Assets Infrastructure and Business Directorate, stated that $900,000 of the $6m allocated in the adopted 2017-18 budget for works and activities at the airport, had already been spent. The report also asked Councillors to note that Council had a current legal obligation to Amphibian Aerospace Industries Pty Ltd (AAI) to undertake further works and seek statutory approvals. The report called for Council to resolve that $1.63m be allocated to meet those current legal obligations. The balance of $3.47m was to be reallocated to six programs identified in the report. According to the report, Council and AAI were in dispute as a result of Council’s resolution to cease expenditure on the airport.

Those programs were not discussed as Mayor Jane Smith moved to defer the matter to the February 27 meeting, to allow for a full briefing and site visit. While Central Coast Council proactively released documents relating to the future of the airport, the lease and agreement for lease between Council and AAI, that were the subject of the debate at the meeting, were kept confidential. A confidential legal advice provided to the Councillors was also subject to legal privilege and remained confidential. The $1.63m was proposed to be spent in order for Council to avoid possible claims arising from alleged breaches of existing contractual obligations. Items of expenditure that Council had agreed to pay under the contract with AAI included $594,500 on electrical works, $635,000 on hydraulic services, $157,500 on tree clearing, $103,500 on demolition and site preparation, $33,500 on subdivision, $40,000 on Section 94 contributions, $44,800 on planning and rezoning and $23,400 on the closure of Jack Grant Ave. Clr Louise Greenaway said at the February 12 meeting that she had waited for months to be given access to the lease and agreement between Central Coast Council and Aerospace Aviation International (AAI) and was then required to keep the information confidential.

Clr Doug Vincent said he thanked the staff for bringing the report to the chamber “but I find more detail and more knowledge needs to be conveyed before we can make a decision on this. “It’s normal practice to be given a briefing to get our heads around issues of this importance,” Clr Vincent said. He said it was not helpful “To get reports in a business paper with limited access and limited information.” Clr Greenaway said: “I obtained a copy of the AAI lease and subsequent documents in January and I took time to read and digest them. “They were released under a confidentiality clause, so I was not allowed to share the information unless other Councillors made the same application,” she said. “On occasion, there will be something that a counsellor asks for and it will be given to all councillors, and on occasions, when I ask for a document, I am faced with this confidentiality decision,” Clr Greenaway said. “How is the decision made that in some instances the information goes to everybody and in some instances, I am restricted?” she asked. Mr Glendenning said confidentiality was determined by the type of document sought and that some documents may not be as controversial nor as confidential as others. “If we are all making a decision on that document, surely we are all entitled to access to the same information,” Clr Greenaway said.

Clr Kyle MacGregor said: “Given the discussions, we have just had, I just wanted to know if it would be possible to release the lease and all other documents.” Steps were then taken within the meeting to provide all Councillors with the same access to the lease and lease agreement. Clr Greg Best then asked Acting CEO Mr Glendenning to “refresh Council’s memory around the importance of confidentiality”, to which Mr Glendenning replied that a breach would be a breach of the Local Government Act and could be referred to ICAC. Clr Doug Vincent then asked Mr Glendenning: “Would it be the position that the Local Government authority would prefer that as much as possible be made transparent and not confidential?” Mr Glendenning said the Government Information Public Access law takes the position that Councils “should provide things openly unless there is a prescribed reason not to, and commercial confidentiality is one.”

Clr Greenaway then proposed that Council sought independent legal advice to (i) examine the terms of the AAI lease and process undertaken, to inform the then councillors on whether or not the terms of the lease were favourable to execute, and (ii) to advise current councillors on how to mitigate any damages or liability that may arise from maintaining the position to suspend works. Mayor Smith asked whether Clr Greenaway’s proposal could be contingent on the outcome of the briefing. Mr Glendenning said there needed to be a resolution that was self-executing and so Council needed to make a decision about whether or not they needed independent legal advice at the meeting in order to give adequate time to brief legal counsel and get it back in time for February 26.

“This Council has absolutely no function in determining or looking back at what the former councillors did, what the advice needs to do is inform these councillors whether the terms of the lease were favourable, it is advice to you, it can’t be used as a mechanism to go back and check on the decisions that were made by former Councillors.” Clr Best asked: “This request for further legal advice, this is an extraordinarily complex issue and your enthusiasm for turnaround by February 26 is commendable, but what kind of costs do you think we may be applying to the ratepayers to receive such advice in such a timeframe.” Mr Glendenning said the cost would be between $5,000 and $10,000 and that timing was very tight. Clr Best continued to ask questions about the quality and professionalism of the legal advice currently provided to Councillors, which Mr Glendenning did. Clr Best and Greenaway then exchanged barbs resulting in Clr Vincent raising a point of order calling Clr Best to “stick to the business at hand”. Mayor Smith subsequently moved the debate away from Clr Best, and the motion to have a full briefing and independent legal advice before reconsidering the matter at the next meeting was carried, with only Clr Best and Clr Jilly Pilon voting against.

Source: Agenda Item 3.6, Feb 12 Meeting notes, Feb 12 Central Coast Council ordinary meeting Jackie Pearson, journalist