TIME TO STAND DOWN: CALL FOR INQUIRY INTO BENDIGO COUNCIL, CEO
The State Government must abandon its cosy relationship with City of Greater Bendigo and stand down council and CEO while an independent inquiry is conducted into the governance and decision-making of council is conducted.
Specifically, the inquiry must probe council’s office consolidation “in-principle” decision to sell council land and buildings at 195-229 Lyttleton Terrace Bendigo – including the municipal offices - to the government that will construct a $90 million GovHub with council a rent-paying tenant.
The intelligence and standing of every Greater Bendigo resident are being disrespected by council's token sum of approximately $5 million for sale of the land in this closed-market deal; nothing for the buildings.
Council’s offices will be demolished and council will hand the sale proceeds straight back to the Government to pay part of the project’s multi-million dollar GovHub shortfall.
CEO Craig Niemann, Mayor Margaret O’Rourke and the majority of councillors have surrendered their right to represent the people of Greater Bendigo. The council’s obstructionist, obstinate and dismissive attitude to community demands for fact and substance on the GovHub project is breathtaking. The financial arrangements are jumbled and unclear. Insufficient information means residents are unable to fairly decide if a GovHub is in the best interests of Bendigo today let alone tomorrow.
Mr Niemann has refused to release legal opinion given to council on reasonable community questions relating to potential political conflict of interest for certain councillors who voted in-principle to effectively give the city’s Lyttleton Terrace headquarters to the State Government.
Council has also refused to provide the details of the recorded value of the properties in its asset register; the register lists all owned assets and the value of those assets. The register is updated annually in June. The register information is important because it allows the public to determine the merit of the council’s actions; it is in the public interest to know the registered value.
A resident request to be provide with the registered asset value for the land and buildings at 195-229 Lyttleton Terrace Bendigo for the financial years 2017-2018 and 2018-2019 was ignored by Director corporate performance, Andrew Cooney. In his 10 December reply, he did not provide any detailed property valuations, instead, condescending descriptions of processes around the overall asset register and identified publicly available information that the residents were well aware of because of their previous correspondence and a meeting with Mr Cooney earlier this year.
The council’s wasteful expenditure in commissioning multiple consultant reports on future office accommodation options is mind-blowing. The first report by PriceWaterhouse did not give a high rating to council becoming a rent-paying tenant in a GovHub, so council commissioned another consultant’s report to get the answer it wanted. Council’s apparent and perceived manipulation has caused the most serious undermining of community confidence in Council for more than 20 years.
Councillors have still to make a final committed decision to sell-out Bendigo to the State Government, yet the CEO has signed temporary office accommodation leases and moved staff out of the Lyttleton Terrace offices.
Council has refused to hold public meetings or requests forums or engage or consult with the community on future office options and has rejected community requests to release business plans on office accommodation offices.
Unable and incapable of taking the community into their confidence on the biggest decision this council has had to make on the future of Bendigo, the CEO and a majority of councillors have rebuffed the community’s every question and every request for information,.
Corners have been cut, councillors and the CEO have gone into hiding whenever questioned, and have been reduced to mere pawns within the murky machinery of the State Government. The council and CEO have point blank refused to consult the community or hold public meetings. The people of Bendigo have been shunned and shunted.
Any trace of confidence has completely disappeared all because councillors and the CEO, in concert with the Government, have hidden and withheld information from residents, and wantonly and brazenly changed their GovHub story to the extent the people of Bendigo have been badly misled. The majority of our representatives have failed to uphold the principles of democracy, good governance, accountability and transparency.
Both the majority of elected councillors and the administrative arm of the City of Greater Bendigo have become puppets of the State Government in contravention of the Local Government Act, with the State Government by-passing the clear separation between the two levels of government as required under the Act. The result is one of grave concern and has consequences for every municipal council across Victoria for the future independence of decision-making, advocacy and governance.
The intertwined and incestuous relationship now on public exhibition in Bendigo must be halted, questioned and changed.
Only an independent inquiry will achieve the best outcomes for the future of local government in Victoria and restore the clear defined role of council and any person appointed to the position of CEO.