Editorial: MR358 – missing investigation and punt lost

Filed in Key Issues, Recent News by July 5, 2023

DURING proceedings in the New South Wales Civil and Administrative Tribunal to obtain the geotechnical report on the failed Merriwa-Willow Tree Road, Council claimed they could not provide the document as it could hinder an investigation by the Office of Local Government (OLG).

However, NCAT did not accept this submission as reasonable grounds to withhold the geotechnical report and ordered it be handed over.

Since then I have asked Council if it is in receipt of the OLG investigation. When I became a Councillor it was one of the first things I asked for, but my request has gone unanswered. Only last month I asked again, but no response.

As an office holder I am required to be fully informed of such investigations, especially as we are about to embark on fixing the road with a budget in the order of $50million. I want to see the results of the investigation and fully understand who was responsible and how it can be avoided this time. Council haven’t even told me if they have the report, much less provided it to me.

Employees have told me Council conducted its own investigation into itself, but the workers were critical that Council’s investigation was into staff lower down the chain. I understand their concerns, how can Council senior management investigate themselves and the Councillors? That is the role of the OLG, so where is that report?

Council’s punt – lost

While the federal and state governments agreed to footing the bill for Council’s monumental cluster catastrophe, I was surprised to hear Council criticise the federal government not handing the money over quick enough. There suddenly seems to be a great urgency.

Dan Repacholi, Federal Member for Hunter, said the money is there, but Council chose to go out to tender, before receiving the money.

“The Minister has confirmed numerous times that the project in going ahead, it’s just a matter of ensuring all the appropriate paperwork is completed and deeds are signed by both State and Federal Governments,” said Mr Repacholi MP.

“Council proceeded to go to tender before getting the cheque from the Minister and that was always a risk,” he said.

“It’s like buying a house before the bank has finalised your home loan and deposited the money into your account,” he said.

“The Council took a punt and lost,” he said.

“The Minister has indicated that project funding will be finalised by August or September and I am working with the Minister to get this done as quickly as possible,” Dan Repacholi MP said. 

I’d be treading carefully with that amount of government funds too! In fact, I would be reticent to allow Upper Hunter Shire Council to try and fix it, and would have more confidence if the project was handed over to another entity entirely.

No read on the contract

As I explained in May, Council voted to give general manager, Greg McDonald, full authority to make any contractual changes he sees fit within the budget, without requiring him to inform Council (see: Editorial: Red flag on Merriwa-Willow Tree Road). I was advised by Council the contract would be signed with the tenderer as a matter of urgency. And therein lies the rub!!

If Council has chosen to sign the contract before it has received the money there may be serious financial implications for ratepayers. Typically in contracts there is an upfront payment on date of signing the contract and often there are daily penalties for delays caused by either party. If Council is delaying the project due to not receiving the Federal government money yet, it may be costing ratepayers thousands each day. Council took a gamble to go to tender before the money was received. If they signed the contract before receiving the money, that may be another more serious gamble, with ratepayers money. I’ve emailed Council to ask if the contract has been signed and if Council has incurred financial penalties, how much money to date has been forfeited?

Upper Hunter Shire general manager Greg McDonald, Upper Hunter MP David Layzell and Upper Hunter Shire Mayor Maurice Collison standing on the failed Merriwa-Willow Tree Road.

The contractor “may walk away”

To also read on social media the contractor for the project could be lost if the federal government does not provide the money immediately, rings further alarm bells. The contractor was only chosen by Council on May 29 and yet by June 26, there is the urgent cry that they “may walk away.” If the contractor is prepared to walk away from a job of this magnitude in less than 30 days of being selected, then perhaps other tenderers which weren’t chosen, are more suitable? Or if the contract has in fact been signed, is there a clause that after a specified period of time the contract is deemed to have lapsed and Council must start the tender process again? If the contract has not been signed, is there a tender time frame about to lapse and we may need to start again? Where’s the fire here? Has someone jumped the gun?

Fixed, but fixed properly

The people who use this road have explained they are losing in the order of $700 every time they need to take cattle to market. The Council negligence has cost them significantly during the last three years. But nobody wants the fix for this road also going pear-shaped.

To avoid those pitfalls there needs to be full transparency, accountability, and strong governance. So why did the other Councillors waive the obligation to be informed of contract changes? Where is the investigative report from the OLG? Has Council already signed the contract before monies have been received? If it has been signed what is the amount in penalties which have been paid to date by ratepayers? Is there a contract date by which it becomes null and void, if work has not commenced and Council has to redo the entire tender process? I’m waiting on those questions to be answered by Council.

As Mr Repacholi MP pointed out, “Council took a punt and lost”. The project hasn’t even commenced yet, and any money being punted, is your money. The warning signs are here again!

Kind Regards,

Cr Elizabeth Flaherty

All of the above are my perspectives, opinions and beliefs as a Councillor on the Upper Hunter Shire Council, are my own, 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.

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