Ballina Shire Council GM Paul Hickey has been accused of conducting a ‘witch hunt’ against elected councillors after demanding they produce statutory declarations in relation to what they know about information allegedly leaked to Echonetdaily about secret council deliberations.
Ballina Greens councillor Jeff Johnson told Echonetdaily the GM had threatened him with legal action despite his written denial that he had leaked any confidential information.
He said Mr Hickey had ‘no legal authority to require a statutory declaration be produced’ and said that councillors were being treated ‘completely differently from staff’, who were merely being ‘spoken to’.
Last Wednesday Ballina Shire Council watcher Vince Kelly wrote in a letter to Echonetdaily that the council had backed the wrong horse in the planned sale of a property in Tamarind Drive.
In it, Mr Kelly asserted a ‘cash and land’ swap offered by Fire and Rescue NSW was preferred over a purchaser who he said would have paid more money and provided the community with a much needed indoor swimming pool.
The letter contained financial information that was heard behind closed doors in a confidential sitting of the council’s commercial services committee of February 26.
Acting on the assumption the information had been leaked, Mr Hickey immediately set up an investigation into the source.
‘What happened was one of the letters published in Echonetdaily had specific information in the council report that was not in the public domain because the people we have been dealing with over it are asking for it to be kept confidential,’ he told Echonetdaily yesterday.
Mr Hickey wrote to Mr Kelly asking him to reveal his sources.
But Mr Kelly said in a letter to Echonetdaily yesterday that the information he included in his letter to the editor had all been gleaned from sources outside of Ballina Shire Council.
‘Just because Mr Hickey submits a business paper on one of his property proposals to a council meeting and the councillors resolve to consider it in a confidential session does not mean that the information is not already in the marketplace,’ he wrote.
‘It is only councillors and council staff who are subject to a confidential resolution. It does not apply to the general public who may be in possession of the information.’
Mr Kelly denies seeing the confidential business paper. And he told Echonetdaily he had responded to Mr Hickey on that matter.
‘There are other issues which he has asked me for that I am still considering,’ he said.
‘He has asked me where I got my information from – I didn’t receive it from any one source.’
Mr Hickey says he has yet to see anything in writing from Mr Kelly.
‘There’s been nothing back to Council I know of. He’s been writing to the papers. I’ve asked him to respond by Friday if he could.’
He added that ‘I’ve seen that [Echonetdaily] letter so I’ll have to weigh up that sort of response in respect to my investigation. I note he hasn’t clarified who that source was.’
Greens councillor Jeff Johnson has accused Mr Hickey of ‘setting a very troubling precedent where the GM is basically not trusting the councillors to give their views’.
‘I’ve confirmed in writing to the GM that I’m not the source but he’s written back saying that’s not good enough. He’s demanding a stat dec, which he hasn’t got the authority to require,’ he said.
‘To treat the staff and councillors differently on this matter is concerning, and doesn’t show a great deal of respect to the elected council,’ he added.
‘Lots of this information is out there in the public sphere. For him to assume without any evidence that it’s been a councillor I think is tantamount to a witch hunt.
‘It makes me think that maybe he has another agenda. Is this maybe a response to my criticism of Council’s handling of the Wigmore Arcade matter?’
Mr Hickey has confirmed that he is contacting councillors and council staff.
‘I’ve written to all the councillors asking them to complete a statutory declaration as to whether they have any information regarding the release of that information,’ he said.
‘The majority have responded to date.’
He added that ‘no accusations have been made against any individual’.
‘I’ve also spoken to staff and am looking at our email and our electronic record system.
‘I’m looking at all the parties involved.’
Mr Hickey declined to comment on what action Council would take, except to say, ‘if it was code of conduct breach there’s a process outlined which councillors are required to adopt’.
‘Breaking own confidentiality’
Mr Kelly has now accused the commercial services committee itself of breaking its own confidentiality by revealing the identity of the successful bidder in its minutes.
‘The minutes contradict Council’s position by revealing the identity of one of the applicants and the nature of the transaction, being a land swap,’ he told Echonetdaily.
Mr Hickey declined to comment on any of Mr Kelly’s accusations.
‘It could potentially affect our dealings, so no comment. Negotiations are continuing with NSW Fire & Rescue,’ he said.