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Niemann’s way or the highway

The process leading to the in-principle approval of the Bendigo GovHub proposal begun back in 2013 and appears to contain major flaws from its conception – a process that has continued to hide information from the residents of our city and certainly not treated us with engaging respect.

Council, CEO Craig Niemann and the State Government have ignored fact, reality and practical necessities as they push on with the dud GovHub that betrays Bendigo, cheered from the sidelines by current member for Bendigo East Jacinta Allan.

Ms Allan and Mayor perpetual Margaret O’Rourke are happy for Mr Niemann to be the face of the sell-out scheme, afterall he does not have to face election and the wrath of voters. But don’t worry, the GovHub debacle has their DNA everywhere.

In the article titled City of Greater Bendigo review slammed by Australian Services Union, dated 26 July 26 2013, Mr Danny Harris from the Australian Services Union (ASU) said the review “wasted $250,000 of ratepayers’ money”.

The ASU also claimed the only conclusion it reached was that existing processes were working well. Despite this lack of endorsement for any change it appears the CoGB were determined to go ahead and went from recommending decentralisation of some services in 2015 to recommending centralisation or consolidation.

As we wrote to Mr Niemann last month, in 2017 GovHubs were flagged for Bendigo and other regional centres by the State Government.

All other GovHub proposals did not affect Council finances nor ratepayers as they were independent of Council and were located on crown land. No other Councils contemplated selling their main assets (land and main council office) and locking their ratepayers into commercial tenancy and a rent forever to a future buyer who is unknown. They chose not to lose their independence nor flexibility going forward. Only Bendigo has and in doing so also signed up for an inferior deal with significantly less new jobs to be relocated to Bendigo.

Ballarat 600 new jobs, Latrobe 200 new jobs, Bendigo 100 new jobs with miserly 55 confirmed to date.

What went wrong? Why did our leaders not negotiate a better deal for Bendigo?

At the Ordinary Council Meeting (OCM) on 20 February 2019 an agenda item titled ‘Strengthening the Economy’ was tabled and an in-principle decision to sell our main assets was passed with three Councillors either rejecting or abstaining on the final vote.

It was reported that at least one Councillor said they could not support it as they had insufficient information. An extraordinary observation. Having read the report and the minutes many times one would hope Councillors were given significantly more detailed information then what is available in the public domain. The report tabled in the OCM is superficial. I challenge anyone to make a fully informed decision based on this report.

There are many questions which are still unanswered in the community. These include:

1) Was a business case prepared by the CoGB on the proposal which was given in principle approval? If not, why not?

2) Why does the refurbishment option produce a significantly higher NPV cost then either full replacement or this proposal? Was the scope of works for the refurbishment the same as the other two options? Why aren’t the NPV costs of all seven options included?

3) Why wasn’t the community consulted on a decision which is HUGE and effects future generations?

4) Why wasn’t an analysis presented on the impact on rates of this in principle approval as part of this report? Shouldn’t that be a key concern of this Council?

It has now been put to Mr Niemann whether Councillors have fulfilled their roles as outlined in the Local Government Act 1989 and if this Council has met their obligations under this Act. Section 136 is one area which covers ‘reasonable degree of stability in the level of rate burden’ and ‘decisions are made and actions are taken having regard to their financial effects on future generations’ and so on.  

We also note section 189 with its restriction on power to sell land. It states under (a) ‘ensure that public notice of intention to do so is given at least 4 weeks prior to selling or exchanging the land’. See below extracts from ‘Local Government Best Practise Guideline for the Sale, Exchange and Transfer of Land’ dated June 2009. Are you Mr Niemann intending to give public notice? Given this is not surplus land and it is a major decision with potential far reaching consequences including effecting ratepayers’ personal obligations, one can see no option but to do so. Only the Minister has the authority to remove the obligations under Section 189.

Given there has been NO PRIOR PUBLIC CONSULTATION on this in principle decision we have asked that ratepayers are fully informed and consulted on this in principle decision. This ensures and facilitates effective communication between the Council and the community. It gives a voice to the community so they too can understand and consider any implications of this in principle decision. Ratepayers also have a right to have access to the relevant material to ensure they can make a fully informed decision. This may be achieved by various public displays, workshops and public meetings.

Given the lack of public consultation we wonder how Councillors can represent their constituents’ views? Unfortunately, it is our opinion many in Bendigo have no idea of the details of this decision taken on their behalf.

We have heard from Council Management that this is a DONE DEAL. This is incorrect. It is our understanding this Council, in a future Ordinary Council Meeting, are required to approve two separate decisions to formally sell the land and enter into a future lease.

Considering this deal is NOT a DONE DEAL could Mr Niemann explain why it is ‘full steam’ ahead and you are committing ratepayer funds to relocation costs prior to approval of this decision in Council?

We have asked that all aspects associated with the implementation of this in principle decision by some in Council are halted until all can be given the opportunity to be consulted on this GovHub proposal which relies on the sale of our major assets unlike any other GovHub in Victoria.

Finally, we have informed Mr Niemman that we are consulting other ratepayer association and even politicians across Australia and as yet have been unable to locate one Council in Australia who has sold or is considering selling their communities major Council offices and land and committing their ratepayers to commercial rent and reduced flexibility. Can he supply an example of another Council who has done so or is considering to do so?

Surprise, surprise, Mr Niemann has not had the decency to properly respond or answer adequately any of the concerns raised by us.

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