Local, Politics

How ratepayers in one fast growing Australian Council lost $78m

A senior staffer at one of the nation’s most infamous city councils has described a culture of fear within the organisation where staff would either “adapt to survive or leave”.

By Anna Hartley

Ipswich City Council, west of Brisbane, was sacked in 2018 and replaced with an administrator following an investigation by the Crime and Corruption Commission.

Key points:

  • A staff whistleblower hotline set up after the council’s dismissal had 118 calls in 16 months
  • Accusations of fraud, corruption, theft, sexual assault and racism arose in the calls
  • A senior staffer told the ABC there was a sense of hope within the staff ahead of local elections in March
Ipswich Council Chambers

David (not his real name), spoke to the ABC following the release of a final report by the interim administrator detailing the city’s problems including lost millions through a CBD development, a toxic culture of bullying and corruption and lack of direction, and what has been done to fix the issues.

“It was known, if you didn’t toe the line, you’d disappear,” David said.

“There was certainly fear of reprisal if you were crossing the wrong person or group.

“There was a lot of [influence] of councillors directly to sometimes quite junior staff to put pressure on them for certain things.

“Some of it was down to ego — almost empire-building of some councillors and internal staff as well.

“In some cases, the scale of the disagreement meant people left the organisation, you’d be essentially pushed out.”

David said a staff whistleblower hotline set up after the council’s dismissal — which had 118 calls in just 16 months with accusations of fraud, corruption, theft, sexual assault and racism — had been crucial.

“In other areas the culture was still quite positive, the problems were in pockets,” he said.

“Giving the staff a voice was really important, I don’t think they expected the volume of calls that they had.”

Staff targeted by abusive community members

David said the real low point came when community members began taking their anger out on staff after the council’s sacking.

He said people were taking off clothing with council logos and removing lanyards before stepping out of the building to avoid being targeted.

Do we need councillors?

Ipswich Mayor Paul Pisasale addressed the media in a hospital gown and pyjamas to announce he was stepping down.

More than 10 councils across Australia have been sacked in the past five years, prompting some to ask if elected councillors are actually necessary.

“There were mowing crews getting abused when they were mowing parks,” he said.

“I had one driver get abused when they were filling up at the petrol station accused of being corrupt and it was suggested they should just drive off with the fuel.”

Interim administrator Greg Chemello’s report outlined the challenges faced by staff.

“The previous culture was one of secrecy and fiefdoms, there was a lack of respect for the law and a culture of doing deals which rippled through the organisation,” he said.

“Many staff had been bullied or were guilty of bullying. With some councillors determined to direct the work of officers in operational matters, there was a clear lack of respect for process and people.”

Ipswich ratepayers lost millions, administrator says

In the report, Mr Chemello said Ipswich ratepayers had lost millions through a decade-long redevelopment of the city’s CBD.

In 2008, the council established Ipswich City Properties Pty Ltd, buying several CBD sites, redesigning redevelopment schemes and undertaking overseas trips to review other CBD redevelopments costing the city $121.6 million.

“The market value of these properties was about $42.8 million. This meant the city’s ratepayers had effectively incurred a loss of about $78 million over the decade,” Mr Chemello said.

“The CBD was hindered by a decade of stop-starts, inactivity [and] poor decision-making.

Photo: Interim administrator Greg Chemello (right) says “more than a dozen” people now no longer work at Ipswich Council. (ABC News: Anna Hartley)

Former Ipswich deputy mayor and Ipswich City Properties chairman Paul Tully disputed the claims.

“That reference to a stalled project is a joke,” Mr Tully said.

“The redevelopment of the CBD was always planned to be a 15 to 20-year project in multiple stages.”

Ipswich City Properties was dissolved in late 2018, with all assets transferred to council.

The Local Government Association of Queensland (LGAQ) said it had long rallied against councillors being on the boards of private companies.

“It’s hard to imagine how you could lose that amount of money,” LGAQ president Mark Jamieson said.

“The city centre of Ipswich is an important asset to that community, so whether it’s as easy as saying ‘that’s the loss’ — some will agree and some won’t.

“Either way, it demonstrates what not to do.

“The investment of council in CBD properties where members of the board were councillors themselves was clearly the wrong structure.

“The report will make enlightened reading for future councillors in Ipswich and indeed in other parts of local government.”

Why your councillor shouldn’t be fixing potholes

Another issue highlighted in the report was the role of mayors and councillors.

“One of the lessons for councillors [in the report] is, you’re not elected to do the work of officers,” he said.

Mr Chemello said training for elected officials and educating the public was a key strategy for administrators.

“Many still cannot understand why a councillor should not take personal responsibility for fixing a pothole, restraining a dog, fining a resident or that it is inappropriate to direct a council officer to do so,” he said.

“Community members can expect their elected representatives will have a clear understanding of their strategic role.”

Photo: All members of Ipswich City Council were sacked after former mayors Andrew Antoniolli (L) and Paul Pisasale were charged by the CCC. (ABC/AAP)

What’s next for Ipswich?

Former Ipswich mayor Paul Pisasale was jailed for extortion in 2019 and his successor Andrew Antoniolli found guilty of fraud the same year.

“Fraud and corruption awareness training and education will commence shortly and will be key,” Mr Chemello said.

“The incoming councillors and mayor can be expected to demonstrate zero tolerance for fraud and corruption.”

The administrator said council still had 1,300 items including signed sporting memorabilia, artwork, barbecues, toys, clothing and merchandise bought by mayors and councillors with ratepayer money.

It will be up to new councillors to decide what is done with them.

David said there was a sense of hope within the staff ahead of Queensland local government elections in March.

“There’s a bit of fear of the unknown,” he said.

“Overall there’s been an improvement over the past 16 months — it hasn’t been easy, it’s been exhausting, but you can see it’s going in the right direction.”

Councils sacked since 2014:

Council areaStateDate dismissed
IpswichQLDAugust 2018
LoganQLDMay 2019
LitchfieldNTOctober 2015
CanningWASeptember 2014
Coober PedySAJanuary 2019
GeelongVICApril 2016
Central GoldfieldsVICAugust 2017
South GippslandVICJune 2019
GlenorchyTASOctober 2017
Huon ValleyTASOctober 2016
PalmerstonNTJanuary 2018

First published at The ABC – Thursday 9 December 2019. See; https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-01-12/ipswich-city-council-report-released-staffer-speaks-fear-culture/11858712

This related story will be of interest too; https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-12-08/local-council-sackings-do-ratepayers-need-councillors/11747478


  1. Note the absence from the list of any NSW Local Government areas sacked since 2014.
    We can only hope that Coffs Harbour City Council, along with some Senior Executives will be added to the list. But no one should be holding their breath while ever the NSW Government allows Councils to run their own race and has a Minister for Local Government with her origins in Local Government, sympathetic to the culture that appears to permeate Local Government across Australia.
    Ipswich City Council is just one of many.
    Look closely at every one of those Local Government areas that have been sacked and you will find almost all have this culture embedded into the their history.
    It continues on from each election cycle in some, with the same faces or interests maintaining their status quo or being replaced with like for like.
    Australia really does need to drain the swamp at Local Government levels.

  2. Richard McDermott

    The rot started when the position of Town or Shire Clerk morphed into Council CEO and the autonomy that went with the position has not served ratepayers well. The title Town Clerk assumed the incumbent was there to do the bidding of the citizens not to operate behind the scenes under something called commercial in confidence and serving goodness knows who.

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