Local, Opinion/Comment

“Put an administrator in place” – letter to Minister (1)

The Coffs Coast Outlook has seen numerous copies of letters sent by ratepayers to the Minister for Local Government, Shelley Hancock, after the Coffs Harbour Council’s contentious vote on 8 August on the new Council Chambers/Civic Centre.

One that caught our eye, because of the detailed and serious nature of the allegations, was the one we publish in part below by retired local engineer Peter Higgins. Today we publish below the first of several excerpts from that letter.

By Peter Higgins

“As a resident and ratepayer of the Coffs Harbour Local Government Area, l am writing to request your immediate intervention in the actions and proposed actions of the Coffs Harbour City Council (CHCC) generally and, in particular, in the matter of the proposed Cultural and Civic Space Project.

The intervention which I request could take the following forms (or other as deemed appropriate by you and the officers of you Department) – 

Preferably, the immediate dismissal of elected Councillors and the General Manager and replacement with an Administrator for a period of, say, five years.

An order by you that all matters in relation to the proposed Civic and Cultural Space Project be immediately suspended, including the cessation of the spending any further monies, until further advice from you following the investigation of all aspects of the project by a panel of appropriately qualified and experienced professionals appointed by you.”

Shelly Hancock – NSW Minister for Local Government

“Explanation and Expansion of Reasons for Request

The following is from an attachment to a letter to the Hon. Shelley Hancock MP, Minister for Local Government dated 11 August 2019. 

The letter sets out grounds for intervention in the affairs of the Coffs Harbour City Council (CHCC) generally, and, in particular, in relation to the proposed Civic and Cultural Space Project. 

In this attachment, some details are taken from the CHCC web site www://haveyoursay.coffs harbour.nsw.gov.au/cultural-and-civic space/faqs#question41853.

The figures/statements come from CHCC’s responses to FAQs (frequently asked questions).

CHCC has blatantly and deliberately ignored the wishes of ratepayers 

The first part of this section does not relate directly to the Civic and Cultural Space Project but is included as an illustration of the CHCC’s attitude to public consultation and to its ratepayers. 

CHCC applied to IPART for a permanent notional general rise of 8.14% in 2015/16 and a further 7.75% in 2016/17.

The proposal was put out to a ratepayer survey through an information booklet and voting (post) card, responses being made either on-line or by return of the post card, and was emphatically rejected by respondents.

As reported in the Coffs Coast Advocate (11 February, 2015, page 7), the on-line survey showed 71% opposing the rate rise and 29% in favour.

The post card survey was more emphatic, showing 88% of respondents opposed and only 11% in favour.

The report goes on to say “council staff said that this was a self-selecting sample that could not reliably be considered representative of the general community.”

This statement is staggering in its duplicity, arrogance and implication. Any survey that relies on responses that are not compulsory is, by its very nature, self-selecting, and Councillors and Council staff would have been aware of this before the survey was circulated to ratepayers.

The inevitable conclusion, therefore, is that there was never any intention to abide by the wishes expressed by ratepayers through the survey unless the result supported the proposal for rate increases.

This is an outrageous abuse of the “process” of public consultation.

At about the same time, CHCC proposed the construction of new cultural facilities – performance space, library and art gallery – for the following estimated costs, at the same time, proposing the following increases to the ordinary general rate to fund the facilities –

  CostIncrease in Ordinary General Rate
Performance
space
$25 million 12.68%
Library $10 million 4.22%
Art gallery $5.6 million 1.52%
Total $40.6 million 18.42%

The CHCC asked for ratepayer opinion in a “community engagement process” via a selected panel and community response with the following results —

Wlling to contribute (Y). Not willing to contribute at rate increase at rate increase specified (N).

 Panelists
(Y)
Community
(Y)
Panelists
(N)
Community
(N)
Library 18% 26% 82% 74%
Art gallery 23% 17% 77% 73%
Performance
space
23% 30% 77% 70%

Once again, notwithstanding this unambiguous statement from ratepayers that they were not willing to pay rate increases to fund the cultural abilities as proposed, CHCC resolved at its 18 December meeting 2014 to proceed.

What the information brochure issued by CHCC did not tell ratepayers was that the cost for every year for 20 years would be a $2.1 million loan repayment + $2.6 million operating cost (Council figures) less income of $80,000 (my figure), giving a yearly cost of $4.62 million or $88,850 per week.

I believe that it is clear from the above that CHCC totally ignores the wishes of ratepayers, notwithstanding clear and unambiguous statements of those wishes and provides information to ratepayers that does not tell the whole story.

Further, with regard to the current proposal for the Civic and Cultural Space Project, several public meetings have undeniably rejected the project, yet CHCC persists.”

_______________

Peter Higgins is a long standing resident of the the Coffs Coast and is a retired engineer.

Further extracts from his letter to Minister Hancock of 11 August will be published here this week.

Editors note: The Coffs Coast Outlook ran an analysis of the consultation and rates process mentioned above about 18 months ago and arrived at very similar conclusions to Peter Higgins.

4 Comments

  1. John Christie

    Many thanks to Peter Higgins and the Coffs Coast Outlook for providing this letter and the other information. We relocated to the Coffs Coast in 2016 and, until now, totally unaware of just how bad is our Council. I have written to the Minister and requested similar actions by the OLG. It is important that the information published on ‘Outlook’ gets to many more residents.

  2. Thank you, Peter Higgins, for the effort you have made to herald not only your thoughts, but I would suspect the thoughts of the majority of the Coffs Harbour Rate paying Community. The actions of this Council, or in particular the Mayor and General Manager appear to show little empathy for the rate paying community. And one could be forgiven not to draw the parallels Time and time again we are seeing similarities to the Commissioned Report conclusions into Port Macquarie Council.

    CONCLUSIONS

    • Council, represented by both the Councillors and staff, have failed to
    demonstrate adequate diligence when dealing with the financial
    management of the project, in particular they have:
    • Failed to adequately acquaint themselves with the project
    and particularly its costs.
    • Failed to impose adequate financial controls over the
    project.
    • Failed to recognise and consider the financial and other
    implications of the substantive changes to project brief.
    • Failed to ensure rigor in Project Control Group.
    • Excused their failures upon the basis that financial issues were “operational issues” falling outside their role.
    • All of the evidence leads to the inevitable conclusion that the
    • Council failed:
    • To involve its community in the planning and funding for the Centre
    • To consult the wider community, preferring the views of the Project Reference Group, and industry providers
    • The Council refused to recognise and consider community concerns and: Denigrated individuals criticising the project
    • Provided misleading and/or incorrect information. Improperly used its support group to campaign against critics, rather than to adopt proper consultation policies

  3. Agreed Mark. Port Macquarie revisited. Could anyone envisage this rediculous situation.?

  4. While the likelihood of the NSW Government intervening in the Coffs Harbour City Council is growing stronger, there needs to be a recommendation for a set of terms of reference presented to include all aspects of the Gordon Street project from its inception from the time about a decade ago when the site was purchased, the circumstances of the purchase along with the purchase of the current Regional Museum and other Council owned properties over that time.
    There needs to be an explanation in any enquiry as to why City Hill has been rejected as the site for arts and culture after it was originally obtained from the Commonwealth Government several decades ago, with covenants for that purpose imposed by the Commonwealth.Where has the $75k gone that was voted for last year for a study into how City Hill could be used ?
    Another part of any investigation should include Council’s business arms. Such as Coastal Works, Prosper Coffs Harbour and the way the airport is currently undergoing transformation ( believed to be by Coastal Works) at great cost for the benefit of a private company who will run the airport including the business park
    The entire management and performance of the Coffs Harbour City Council’s Executive levels are cause for great concern as these managers have become the authoritarian managers of our city.
    It is my under standing that there are lower levels of Council staff ready to blow the whistle on practices that may require reference to ICAC.
    We cannot allow the opportunity to open up the “sewer” at this time to pass by solely looking at Council’s Gordon Street debacle, but going through all of the Council’s performance and operations over the past 8 to 10 years.
    It is a big ask, but ask we must !!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*