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Council GovHub train wreck wrapped in secrecy

Updated: Apr 1, 2019

Blunders galore as council rams through inferior project failing to give people a say!

Last evening the 20th February 2019, not because I wanted to, but because I felt I had to, I attended the City of Greater Bendigo Council meeting. You see I had done considerable research on a project known as GovHub and to my dismay I found a lot of the preaching of how good it was for Bendigo just did not add up.

I waited and sure enough item 4. and 4.1 on the Agenda came on for debate entitled, “Strengthening the Economy and GovHub February 2019”. All 12 pages to convince those interested that this 90-million-dollar project was the best thing since the gold rush for Bendigo.

It was moved councillor Fyffe in great haste and seconded councillor Pethybridge that the matter be debated. Swiftly councillor Fyffe, some suggest well past his use by date, but I would not say that, commenced with great gusto and authority speaking to the motion. In a louder voice than usual he started reading from the officer report recommendation in the Agenda. Part of that recommendation was, “Agree in- principle to the sale of Council-owned land located at 159-229 Lyttleton Terrace Bendigo to enable the development of the site, subject to the appropriate sale process and consultation with the Valuer General of Victoria.”.

The first major blooper for the night. You see the recommendation Fyffe read states the sale of 159-229 Lyttleton Terrace Bendigo was to enable the development of the site, but four properties - Supercheap Auto’s, a car park at number 165, Jaycar at 167 and the YMCA building at 171 - are well away from, and do not appear in any council aerial photos of, the proposed GovHub site, but as the recommendation is worded they are part of the site.

How embarrassing can that be and guess who the Responsible Officer for the report and recommendation is, yes CEO Craig Niemann. Back to the drawing board Mr Niemann and next time get it right and by the way make sure you follow correct procedure, due process and good governance. I can assure you many will be watching.

Next up was councillor Pethybridge our newest accidental councillor who seconded the motion and being obviously coached by councillor Williams for all in the gallery to see. Well, Mr Pethybridge went on to expose the merits of the GovHub with great feeling. Was this the same Mr Pethybridge who when standing for election was going to move hell and earth to make sure due process and good governance was followed. Blooper number 2. Mr Pethybridge spat out that the land proposed for the new building and current site of council officers was worth 5.15 million dollars, a price that he said was fantastic and one that could not be refused. Does the $5.15 million include the value of the four properties – Supercheap Auto’s, a car park at number 165, Jaycar at 167 and the YMCA building at 171? Problem, this is the first time the community has been made aware of the value and is clearly in breach of commercial in confidence arrangements and probably in breach of Mr Niemann’s code of conduct provisions.

One by one the secret seven (five councillors Mayor and CEO) eventually rose to their feet during the evening and exposed the fantastic merits of supporting Option 1, that is sell the current site of its main office and become a tenant in the GovHub. A tenant eventually to a Super Fund or private equity group I would suggest. Don’t suggest to me rents will not be to market value.

Another problem I observed was councillors suggesting that because of the Valuer General being involved it would ensure Council would get a better deal and cheaper rent. What utter rubbish, how naive, the Valuer General will assess what is the commercial going rate and that will be the rent and conditions. Nothing less nothing more.

The secret seven spoke of how good a deal the GovHub was and referred to page 46 of the Agenda dot point one exposing to us the so-called benefits per annum to the Bendigo Economy. Wonderful, wonderful and we should not compare Ballarat and Bendigo GovHubs. I wonder why! You see a little research using Bendigo Councils own figures says 100 new public sector jobs equates to an injection of $28.8 million per annum to the Greater Bendigo Economy. Lets accept that and then work out how much the State Government is gifting to the Ballarat economy with no input or financial commitment from council to their GovHub. 600 new public sector jobs on my reckoning equates to around $138.24 M per annum injected into the Ballarat local economy. Pretty good!

Not satisfied councillor Emond even tried to suggest Ballarat was not really getting 600 new public sector jobs. Sorry councillor you can fool some of the people some of the time, type into Google Ballarat GovHub and I’m sure you will have to agree that they are getting 600 new public sector jobs, plus a bundle of other expensive goodies from the State Government for parking and the like, millions of dollars’ worth.

Currently we are being sold a dud and it’s about time councillors and local members stood up for Bendigo’s rightful share and that should be somewhere near equivalent value and benefits to Ballarat.

Councillor Emond and others even suggested that the Commonwealth Government may be an interested party to the GovHub. The building is already full with 1,000 desks, where will the commonwealth fit? Really, maybe Mr Emond should have absented himself from the discussion and vote. If I’m not wrong, he is the partner of the current Federal Member and could be perceived as having a conflict of interest.

Third Blooper for the night was a suggestion that a carpark maybe a possibility on left over land behind the current offices not required for the GovHub. Well is this going to be a “Wilson Car Park” or maybe another effort by council to build a multi-story carpark. I think we are still paying one off and I’m sure Bendigo residents will be thrilled if they have to pay commercial car parking rates to visit the so called one-stop shop GovHub. Oops, also the first the community has heard of this option and not anywhere in the report.

A fourth major Blooper occurred during last week in discussion I had with a male councillor who informed me that VicRoads was to be part of the tenancy of the proposed GovHub. Oops, nothing in the report, nothing out in the public arena and yes, this councillor is part of the secret seven who suggest they have consulted widely with the community and most are in favour of the GovHub. What rubbish, most people I and friends have canvassed have not one clue about the proposed GovHub. Again, this councillor has breached confidence and would clearly be in breach of councillor code of conduct. I will happily name the councillor in the correct forum.

I could write pages, but will list a number of issues that require urgent answers: -

• Mayor claims the GovHub is in the Community Plan: it is not.

• There is no public GovHub concept Plan, feasibility study, or investment business case.

• Claims improvement in council efficiency and service delivery aren’t quantified.

• Council ignores community consultation against government & Independent Review.

• Council has never debated a GovHub or its alternatives at a Council Meeting, so how has Council GovHub progressed so far with minimal public communication. Lack of good governance and due process can be the only answer.

• Claims the GovHub will reinvigorate the CBD without any quantitative data that this is true.

Correspondence to Mayor and CEO shows they refuse to answer reasonable questions regarding due process and good governance

At the 11th hour the CEO as reported in the media says it’s cheaper for council to retain ownership of land (crown jewels) and build its own stand-alone building. BUT he backs a more expensive option against advice of a $98,000 Price Waterhouse ratepayer funded report. Why? Release the report.

Council must release the reports on the 7 office options put to council, and the government release the location of the six other sites it investigated. Too many unanswered questions and even councillor Fyffe struggled to explain them at the meeting.

Congratulations to Councillors Alden, Metcalf and Flack who dared to offer a differing opinion to that of six other councillors. Surely it is reasonable as suggested to defer the proposal for two months, consult properly with the community, prove to us the benefits and non-benefits warts and all. It is then and only then that the community will truly embrace a GovHub whatever the makeup will be. Secrecy causes suspicion and division both in council and the community. This is far to important a decision to be rushed.

I was greatly disturbed to hear during the meeting that councillor Metcalf was denied information she had requested that was included in the officer report to Council. A duly elected councillor, not good enough. The community should demand answers from the CEO, clearly division for all to see exists within councillor ranks.

Too many unanswered questions, too much secrecy and any suggestion the government will walk away unless a rushed decision is made is utter rubbish.

Go ahead government. Bendigo has ample crown land just like Ballarat to build your GovHub, with the right site providing ample parking. 600 new government jobs like Ballarat with associated benefits of $138.24 million per annum to the economy and rate revenue gained will surely pay off a stand along building on the current council site for 400 workers. Maybe worth considering?

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