New council business advisory panel approved

 NEWCASTLE lord mayor Jeff McCloy has formed a panel of prominent Hunter businessmen to review the city’s ailing finances, in a move that puts him directly at odds with general manager Phil Pearce.

The council voted nine to four last night to establish Cr McCloy’s financial advisory panel, which will provide councillors with a second opinion on information and advice from council staff.

The idea itself was resisted from within the ‘‘round house’’ administration building.

Mr Pearce, when questioned about his position during last night’s meeting, said he opposed the formation of the panel.

‘‘I indicated to the lord mayor that I don’t particularly support this, I think it’s the role of staff,’’ Mr Pearce said.

‘‘The lord mayor and I have talked this through.’’

Cr McCloy proposed the panel by lodging a lord mayoral minute last night.

It will include NIB chief executive Mark Fitzgibbon, Wests Group chief Phil Gardner, Centennial Coal chairman Bob Cameron and Callaghan Institute managing director Jeff Eather.

The Callaghan Institute wrote a report in April, critical of the council’s financial management, particularly mounting debt and large deficits.

Long-term financial projections show the city’s accounts heading deeper into deficit if nothing is done.

Mr Pearce announced a drastic proposal last month to claw back $255million over 10 years, including stripping 10per cent out of the city’s annual budget, introducing entry fees to cultural facilities and increasing land rates.

Cr McCloy said after last night’s meeting that the panel was designed to harness the wealth of experience from within the community. He stressed there was no intention to undermine the council’s current management.

‘‘If I had those four people giving me advice, I’d welcome them with open arms,’’ he said.

‘‘I wish they’d give me some advice in my business, but I’d have to pay them a lot more than for civic service.’’

Cr McCloy said the panel would provide financial advice to the council only. It would not look into the social or community policy of the city.

‘‘It’s only advice, it has no legal standing.’’

Labor councillors voted against the establishment of the panel.

Cr Stephanie Posniak (Labor) raised concern about appointing people who might have access to confidential information.

Mr Pearce stressed that any panel would review only publicly available financial documents.

The panel will review council documents, meet with Mr Pearce and hold a workshop with councillors before next year’s budget is tabled.

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