Editorial: Council Meeting December 2022

Filed in Recent News by December 19, 2022

The following is my perspective, opinions and beliefs as a Councillor on the Upper Hunter Shire Council, which may not (in fact probably don’t) reflect Council’s position, but which as an elected representative I am supported in law to freely express.

Considering how many Code of Conducts I’ve had thrown at me in quick succession, including being the other Councillor who was on leave and reported to the Office of Local Government (OLG) with Sue Abbott for not completing a form, I’ve decided it’s high time to ensure I am better fulfilling my duties as an elected representative by ensuring the people of the Shire understand my view from inside the tent and why I adopt the positions I do in how I vote on issues.

I’ve no doubt Chairman Meow is monitoring my thoughts, beliefs and opinions expressed herein…but here goes!

My money is on there will be another attempted Code of Conduct complaint taken out against me for daring to speak out, but thankfully last I checked we are still a democratic country, not yet ruled by Chairman Meow, so here’s my recap of the highlights from tonight’s Council meeting.

Merriwa Footpath and Cycleway

In my opinion, the people of Merriwa should be proud of Stephen Gowlland’s address to Council this evening. Mr Gowlland maintained his cool, with clear responses to Councillor questions, which at times I personally felt were hostile and antagonistic. Mr Gowlland’s proposal to use the Merriwa Reserve Fund, for the bike path, I believe was sensible.

By way of background Council obtained a grant of $922,647 for a footpath and cycleway. But in the grant application Council stipulated, $60,000 would be contributed to the project from Council. What has ruffled feathers in Merriwa is the $60,000 is to be funded by land owners adjoining the cycleway and it was something the land owners were not aware was written into Council’s grant application. Mr Gowlland proposed the $60,000 be drawn from the Merriwa Reserve Fund instead of from the pockets of adjoining landowners. 

Outcome: The recommendation was that Council garner the $60,000 from the local landowners along the cycle way. I foreshadowed a motion that the $60,000 be drawn from the Merriwa Reserve Fund. However, the original motion was moved by Cr Burns, seconded by Cr Campbell and supported by Cr Burns, Campbell, McKenzie, Williamson and McPhee. I voted against, and so too did Cr Watts and Cr Clout. The net result, Council voted for the adjoining landowners to stump up the $60,000.

Donations to Community Groups

There was a motion to provide a $200 donation to the Lions Club of Murrurundi and $200 to the Cassilis Rodeo, but to refuse a donation of $642 to St Joseph’s Primary School to cover the costs of pool hire and lifeguard hire so 45 rural students could learn to swim.

In the school’s letter to Council the small Merriwa primary school explained they only had 45 students, so the costs were considerable for them to run swimming lessons for their students. They outlined that for many students this was the only opportunity they had to attend swimming lessons, highlighting the need for our children to learn these life skills and reduce the risk of drowning. Notably, children drown at far higher rates in inland water ways than coastal waterways.

Cr Ron Campbell, requested the three donations be broken into three different items for voting. In practicality it means you could vote to provide the donation to the Lions Club and Cassilis Rodeo, but then vote to also give a donation to the primary school. However, the initial motion was put forward by Cr James Burns and seconded by Cr Belinda McKenzie. Cr Burns as the mover of the initial motion had the discretion to accept or reject Cr Campbell’s proposal to separate the items. Cr Burns refused to make the concession. 

Councillors who voted for the motion (which included rejecting a donation to the primary school for swimming lessons), included: Cr Watts, Cr Burns, Cr Williamson, Cr McPhee, Cr McKenzie and Cr Clout. Cr Campbell and I voted against the motion. Personally, I absolutely support a donation to both the Lions Club and Cassilis Rodeo, but feel personally disgusted that Council did not give a donation to a school of 45 rural students for swimming lessons.

Scone Town Revitalisation Committee

I chair the town revitalisation committee. No mean feat! As chair I wanted the meetings recorded so that any member of the public could see what was happening in those meetings. The committee voted to have the meetings recorded and available to the public, but the Councillors voted to veto the committee’s decision. Why? You’d have to ask the Councillors who voted against it. I’m all for transparency and keeping the community informed.

This month I found a curious recommendation to Council, apparently from the committee, that we supported Council deciding on the mural artist, not the general public. It was completely contrary to my recollection of the meeting, but since I had no meeting recording to review for accuracy, I called other committee members. Their recollection was also that the committee would recommend the final four artists and we would let the community vote for the final artwork. Mayor Collison, in my opinion, seemed more fixated on the issue that Council voted not to record the revitalisation committee meetings, and kept arguing that the recordings could not take place. I tried to get things back on track with the substantive issue that the residents should be able to decide on the final artwork. Fortunately, the wording in the motion was changed to allow this latitude. However, I remain concerned that the committee recommendation changed between the committee meeting and the recommendation put to Council.

Code of Conduct Complaints

From September 1, 2021 until August 31, 2022 there were three Code of Conduct complaints received against Councillors and the General Manager. Two have been finalised and another one is still being investigated. The amount of money ratepayers spent on these were $6,067. A Code of Conduct complaint is basically where one person accuses another of acting improperly. For example, Cr Abbott and I had a code of conduct taken out against us for not filling out a form while we were on leave, which was sent to our Council email address, which we both told Council we would not be checking. Nevertheless that constitutes a reason for a staff member or fellow Councillor to make a code of conduct complaint against us and spend ratepayer money doing it. I look forward to seeing who actually put their name to that complaint against us. All truths come to light eventually folks!

In the Council meeting tonight I asked for the report on the full investigation into each of the finalised matters and apparently I will be sent those reports. Sue Abbott always held the title for being the subject of the most code of conduct complaints, but it looks like I am now set to steal her notorious title. And I will share ALL of the details of any complaints made against me, just as I shared the outcomes and findings of the two NCAT matters I won against Council. It may take time to provide the full findings of my matters, as we need to go through the full process with the Office of Local Government, before ending up in NCAT. But I’ll share all when I am able and give you the figure for how much money Council was prepared to spend of ratepayers money doing it.

Sale of the Early Learning Centre

There was a confidential report made to Council on the proposed sale of the Early Learning Centre in Scone. While I can’t disclose any information which is at this stage is commercial in confidence, I will happily disclose everything that does not meet the test of confidentiality under the legislation. Simply put, just because something is placed in a confidential meeting, does not mean it meets the test of being confidential. There is much I will review in this section for what meets that test under the law, but at this stage I can freely report that in the meeting I requested detailed financials of the Early Learning Centre business operations for the past few years, specifically including pre-covid. Wayne Phelps kindly agreed to meet with me and walk me through any detail I require, which is much appreciated. Other Councillors questioned my ability to request and see such information. The general manager, Greg McDonald, to his credit explained to those Councillors that I was absolutely entitled to such information and the same information could be provided to them. I keenly look forward to this briefing. My firmly held personal belief is that if in this day and age if you can not make money from a childcare centre, then you shouldn’t be allowed near money!

Corporate Services Minutes

I sit on the corporate service committee, a subcommittee of Council, which oversees finances. I’ve never professed to be a numbers person, but my super power is never being afraid to ask questions. During my role in crisis management I often asked financial questions of companies and the answers were often very surprising! I don’t remember a time when I was left feeling embarrassed for asking a financial question, but I remember many occasions when the finance person answering felt egg running down their face in front of the executive/board. And it turns out I’m not completely inept with numbers, last year I did my toughest university post-graduate Advanced Statistics exam and scraped in 89%. I don’t profess to be a numbers person, but even I know that percentage ain’t bad.

Now bear with me if you glaze over with numbers, this is important for you to understand as a ratepayer. If Council can’t meet budget, guess who ultimately foots the bill? You will, with a rate rise!

In the Corporate Services monthly reports, they state “variation to budget” for each line item. For example: “Hunter Warbirds and Aerodrome revenue lower than budget by $70k.” But what does that mean? If you’re lost, don’t worry it doesn’t reflect your lack of mathematic ability, it reflects the lack of financial information provided. I mean I’d prefer to see the basics: money in (revenue), money out (costs) and net (are we in the red or black and by how much?).  For example, if the only information you are given is “variation to budget”, if the anticipated budget revenue was $71k, and the actual revenue was lower than anticipated by $70k, then that means the revenue is only $1k. But if the anticipated revenue was $500k and the revenue was $430k, then it is still a revenue lower than budget by $70k. But the actual revenue of 430k is radically different to an actual revenue of 1k. If you only have “variation to budget”, you can’t tell how good or bad the net position is.

So we can dig back a few months to a quarterly report to find out what the anticipated revenue was, but that still isn’t going to tell you what the costs were, or the net position. I asked a bloke who is very good with numbers how I could find the basic revenue, cost, net etc. He confidently said, “Liz, it’s basic algebra”, then I watched on as he tried to set up the equation, only to find we didn’t have enough basic figures to do the algebraic equation. Never be afraid to ask basic questions! Why was he so confident he could figure it out? Because organisations typically provide the basic figures to do those equations, so it was a fair assumption. However, in this case, we didn’t have the basic figures.

In the Corporate Services meeting I asked for each line item reported, to include the revenue, cost, net and budget. Sure they could also report the variation if they liked. But my request was met with resistance. Cr Burns said, “they’re all just numbers on a page!” I disagreed. Cr Burns then said it would take up too much time for staff to report these additional figures. However, the staff need to have the revenue, cost and net in order to calculate the variation to budget. I saw no extra work, just four extra dot points. The General Manager, Greg McDonald, then explained the more detailed report was provided quarterly and monthly reports were just the simplified version. Personally, I’m all for simple! I explained I didn’t need “detailed”, just “simple” revenue, cost, net and if they wanted to throw in variation – cool. My position was this would still be a “simple” report, not a “detailed” report. It was resolved there would be a new template to report these additional simple dot points before the next Corporate Services meeting.

Upshot: To my surprise at tonight’s Council meeting I was asked to endorse minutes which said I’d requested a detailed financial report for all Corporate Services meetings. I spelt out that I simply wanted revenue, cost, net and if they liked variation to budget, not a detailed “full breakdown of revenue and costs” as it alleged in the minutes. Moreover, that Cr Burn’s concerns for staff hours could be allayed, as the staff needed those basic figures to calculate the variation from budget. The General Manager argued I’d asked for a “more detailed” report and at that point, in my opinion, we’d firmly entered ridiculous semantic territory. It was eventually conceded, as an elected representative, I’d be entitled to have those basic figures. Anyone who has run a business, or managed basic household expenses can understand the importance of knowing if you are in the red or the black. Council budgets, revenues, costs are FAR MORE than “just numbers on a page!” I have further emailed Council seeking financial information on a range of issues and will keep you posted.





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