The waiting game

Central Coast CouncillorsSuspended Central Coast Councillors.

Central Coast councillors are playing the waiting game, with a decision from Local Government Minister Shelley Hancock on whether or not they will be suspended expected any day.

Following the shock resignation on October 26 of Councillors Troy Marquart and Rebecca Gale, the remaining 13 councillors fine-tuned a submission to the Minister on why they should not be suspended, lodging it on October 28.

The Minister had issued councillors with a notice of her intention to suspend them and install a temporary administrator last week in the wake of revelations about the Council’s dire financial situation, giving them seven days to lodge a submission to appeal the move.

“The future of our democratically elected local representatives is now in the hands of the Minister,” Mayor Lisa Matthews said on Wednesday.

“I can only hope the Minister gives careful consideration to this submission, and factors into her decision-making process the fundamental importance of community representation at a local level.

“Now that the submission has been formally received, I once again would welcome a meeting with the Minister to provide a status update on our 100 Day Recovery Action Plan.”

Council’s cash crisis first came to light on October 6, when it was revealed it was headed towards an $89M deficit, estimated by Cr Greg Best to be more in the order of $200M.

As the situation worsened, Council announced last week it would not have enough money to meet staff payroll, with the Minister granting $6.2M to pay staff and clear other outstanding debts.

In their submission to the Minister, councillors emphasised significant challenges over the past year including bushfires, natural disasters and COVID, all of which they said had caused unprecedented challenges for Council including a significant strain on Council’s finances.

They also cited ongoing costs arising from the 2016 merger of the former Gosford and Wyong councils.

“In order to directly address these challenges, early in 2020 Council engaged consultants Grant Thornton Australia to plan and advise on managing these impacts,” the submission says.

It goes on to outline measures which have been taken to mitigate the financial crisis including engaging KPMG to undertake a forensic audit, actively liaising with the Office of Local Government and working with management, staff and advisers to address the situation.

The submission also says Council’s Audit, Risk and Improvement Committee is providing independent oversight and fulfilling an advisory role.

“Council is clearly addressing the issues and risks and taking action to ensure proper fiscal management,” the submission says.

It says the use of restricted funds had only very recently come to the attention of councillors and that the Audit, Risk and Improvement Committee comprising eminent external audit experts had not identified an issue with the use of reserved funds.

“Whilst there has clearly been a failure in Council’s accounting systems which must be urgently addressed, in the circumstances of multiple levels of audit and accounting oversight, this is not a failure that would warrant suspension of the elected representatives,” it says.

The submission says the Minister has not undertaken any previous intervention attempts at intervention and it is incumbent upon her to consider doing so before commencing a suspension of elected representatives’

“If, after carefully considering the plans and actions in place to address the situation, you remain concerned that the actions are not adequate for some specific reasons, Council strongly encourages you to issue a performance improvement order requiring specified action and requiring reporting to you regarding that action,” it says.

“It is imperative that during this challenging time the continuity of community representation on Council continue, whilst ensuring that the serious matters raised are being addressed.”

The full submission can be viewed on Council’s website.

Terry Collins