Port Stephens Council's drainage case raises serious questions

NEWLY elected councillors, and probably many already in local government, could do worse than spend an hour or two reading the findings of a public inquiry in 2007 into Port Macquarie Council’s construction of its Glasshouse arts facility.

The original plan was for the council to provide a site and $2.5 million, with a private company providing $4 million.

It all went pear-shaped. The inquiry, which led to the sacking of the elected representatives the following year, is more than 300 pages of excruciating evidence on how the project blew out to more than $40 million. Inquiry chair Frank Willan documented how a business project became an “aspirational project” for the council to build an “icon”.

The inquiry is most relevant to councillors today when it details how the project ran out of control. Lack of transparency, lack of accountability to the public which raised serious concerns almost from day one, and the concentration of decision-making, were key reasons.

The mayor, the deputy mayor and the general manager had early control, Mr Willan found. Councillors accepted, or did not challenge, advice that once a contract was let for the project it became an “operational” issue for council staff to deal with, rather than a responsibility of the council as a whole to keep a tight rein on.

Mr Willan’s report details how councillors remained largely unaware of a budget spiralling out of control and internal communication failures that allowed funding caps to be repeatedly breached. But councillors were sacked because they “failed to demand their right to accurate and complete information” about the Glasshouse and “failed to fulfil their role as elected persons”.

The buck stops with elected councillors, in other words.

A NSW Supreme Court judge on September 8 criticised Port Stephens Council and the owner of the Nelson Bay Lagoons Estate over the running of a case where the issue is drainage and whether the council complied with a 2006 court decision.

The judge’s comments should be ringing alarm bells for councillors, particularly because it appears a court-appointed expert – agreed to by opposing parties – has produced a report that challenges the council’s case.

Millions of dollars are on the line and the signs aren’t good.

Issue: 38,600.