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Byron Shire
August 12, 2022

What Lismore Council has to do to get $20,000,000

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The Morrison Low report at the centre of Lismore Council’s fiery debate.

Item 16.1 on Lismore Council’s July meeting agenda turned into a show stopper on Tuesday evening at Goonellabah, as councillors discussed $20,000,000, and what they’d have to do to get it. It emerged that a crucial document relating to Lismore’s future had been signed by General Manager John Walker with no discussion. Was this administration by stealth?

Executive Summary’s item B was a funding agreement with the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment (Office of Local Government division).cThe recommendation was that council note the document be executed as negotiated under delegated authority by the General Manager.

Deputy Mayor, Cr Peter Colby was the first to speak. ‘I think what I see with the future is that these, what you would call signings and signatures, have been given to the general manager to sign off. I don’t have a problem with that at all. I think that in general terms, we have to move forward with all this process.

‘I support it on the grounds that I think that we now are going into a stage where we’re going to have to use the reconstruction commission and we’re going to have to use them to support our business going forward, and secondly, as far as the OLG is concerned, they’re putting faith in the organization, that we can restructure it and rebuild it, and so I support those financial signing of the documents and stamping.’

OLG in the house

At this point, hours into the meeting, Cr Adam Guise asked if the people from the OLG in the chamber were going to speak or have the opportunity for questions and answers on the item.

Cr Krieg said it was an oversight that he hadn’t mentioned them before and introduced  Executive Director, Local Government, Ally Dench and Council Engagement Manager, Anita Gambhir. ‘They choose not to speak tonight. It’s not their role. They are purely here as observers.’

A pseudo administration?

While council debated splitting item A and item B, Cr Guise said he had a question. ‘What are we actually agreeing to? Secondly, are we making what we’re agreeing to publicly available with our residents and ratepayers who we are accountable to, as a governing body? And thirdly, is this pseudo administration?’

General Manager John Walker outlined the agreement. ‘What we’re agreeing to is an agreement that supports our flood reconstruction works and activities, and allows the council to rebuild its systems and processes under the terms of capacity and capability.

‘In effect, there’ll be a roadmap that is to be agreed [upon] which is based initially on the Morrison Low work, which we’ve amended, and is still to come back. So we’re agreeing on a funding agreement for $20 million over three years to assist with that work.

‘The question is, is it to be made public? The answer is yes. There is currently work on drafting the document, the roadmap as such, which will allow it to be published and placed in front of the people.

‘And as to the last question, I don’t wish to answer that.’

The Morrison Low roadmap

Cr Vanessa Ekins rose to speak against the item. ‘What we’re actually agreeing to is the Morrison Low roadmap, which I thought was an appalling document and needlessly criticized the previous council, which had very good strategies in place that were completely ignored.

‘Also, no consultation happened with this chamber at all. It’s an appalling document and I don’t think we should be signing off on it.

‘The other thing that I really disagree with, is that the actual funding agreement was emailed to us at five o’clock this afternoon. We had no idea the OLG were even turning up here today. So if that’s the way things are going to keep going, I’m really distrustful of the whole process.’

No opportunity to have input

Cr Ekins continued. ‘Now what the actual agreement which we were sent at five o’clock this afternoon says is that, “the parties agree that the Morrison Low report provides a relevant and accurate analysis of the situation”. Well, I don’t think it has, or does, and I’ve had no opportunity to have any input into that at all. It identifies a roadmap that we’re supposed to work on, a separate plan of action – what else is it saying here? That we’ve got to set up a project committee made up of just the general manager and some other delegate. Two people!

‘And then we have to appoint a project manager, with appropriate expertise, who is the liaison between this council and the OLG.

‘And then there’s all these provisos, no fetter on administrative action, which means that the department or the secretary or the minister, can take any sort of administrative action they like on us. I think this is a very dangerous funding agreement, and we need to have a workshop on that and really talk about it.’

Completely inappropriate

Cr Ekins went on to say, ‘It’s completely inappropriate that we had a quick, confidential briefing on a report that only spoke to two people in this room. Apart from some staff. They didn’t talk to me. I’ve been here longer than any of you and I’ve got some really firm views and certainly have a very clear idea of what the previous administration were planning in terms of our sustainability.

‘I see this as a form of control by the state government and bypassing us all together. Now we are elected to represent our community and to come up with a strategic vision for this area, in consultation with our community, and none of us have had the opportunity to do that yet. Staff put out a discussion paper which I support, a lot of it, when have we actually got together in a room and talked about how we going to implement our strategic vision in this time of crisis? Months and months down the track, we haven’t.

‘If you read that stupid Morrison Low report, it appoints consultants for three years to come up with a strategic vision – considering what we’ve just been through – three years of consultants! Imagine the money that goes into that? It’s completely unacceptable,’ said Cr Ekins.

The need to defer the matter

‘We need to defer this matter, sit down as a council, that we were elected to do and have a discussion about that roadmap before we sign any agreement at all. We were elected to do this and to determine the strategy in consultation with our community.

‘It’s up to our mayor to liaise with the general manager and make sure that our strategy is implemented by the staff. It’s not for the state government to tell us what to do.’

Cr Ekins said she was going to move an amendment that the matter be deferred until councillors had been briefed properly.

A real shock

Cr Guise spoke for that amendment. ‘This is a shock, a real shock. It might be our only, last chance to get our voices out there. Quite frankly, I see this as pseudo administration. This is a worrying development where we’re being forced down a path, with a funding agreement, which sets very precise terms, coupled to a roadmap which we’ve had no consultation with as councillors.

‘It’s been developed by government bureaucrats speaking to a narrow selection of staff and councillors to rope us into a series of events, which is not what elected councillors have chosen, and certainly not what the community has chosen or been consulted about. This is pseudo administration.

‘Part of that roadmap is to appoint an independent planning panel. That’s to sack us in our role, determining development applications in this chamber. And that should be anathema to all those councillors elected here and the community out there. That takes away council’s planning powers.’

A pretence of flood recovery

Cr Guise continued, ‘And this is all being done under the pretence of flood recovery, where there’s nothing like a crisis to consolidate power to give it to one person, or one body, and be stuffed with the community.

‘Well, that’s not what I was elected for. I am elected here, like you people, you eleven diverse people, voices of the community. We’re not here to pander to the state government. They tried that with the federal government. They got turfed out of office. Boris got turfed out in the UK. People are standing up to autocrats and bullies. We will not stand for it. This community will not stand for it.

‘Administration means giving away our power, giving away our power. We can call it a “Benevolent Dictator”. We can call it an “autocrat” but we are giving away our power.

‘The people of Lismore and this region will not stand for this if, this is the path you force us to go down.’

Cr Gordon wanted it noted that he was speaking against the amendment.

Cr Rob spoke in favour of the amendment.

Is it a done deal?

Cr Darlene Cook had questions.

‘The recommendation notes the document be executed, which says to me “please do it sometime in the future”, but this agreement has already been signed. It has! We have got a copy of it tonight with your signature on it Mr Walker, with Miss Mitchell as a witness,’ said Cr Cook.

‘It’s been signed. It was signed two weeks ago and we had to beg tonight to see a copy of it which we were given five o’clock and with the meeting starting at six, we’ve had no opportunity to examine that funding agreement in detail.

‘We keep complaining that you’re treating us like mushrooms and that is what you are doing.

‘You have eleven people in this room who are responsible for a diverse range of people around our communities. And you’re ignoring us. You’re sidelining us, and you’re just riding roughshod over the top of us.

‘Now we’d like to come with you on the journey. We want to get this council fixed – “turn the Titanic” as they say.

‘We know there’s a lot of problems. We‘ve been begging for money from the OLG for years – and their answer was “do a special rate variation”.

Bring us on the journey

‘All of a sudden we’ve got the money, but you won’t work with us. You won’t bring us on the journey. So you get the Morrison Low report, which apparently tells us what we’re going to do, and we’re going to do it under the auspices of the Office of Local Government. We have to, in conjunction with them, appoint a project manager who doesn’t report to us. They report to the OLG. We’ve got to pay for them. They have total authority to run this entire project. But they don’t report to us, they’re not accountable to us. They don’t have to tell us a thing that they’re doing.

‘We’re the elected members. We are the democratically elected members representing our community,’ said Cr Cook.

Treated like mushrooms

‘You’re treating us like mushrooms. You’re sidelining us. It’s administration by default without sacking us, though on the other hand, having listened to the Four Corners report last night, I wonder if the mayor had it in mind to perhaps suggest we go into voluntary administration.

‘Did you have that in mind Mr Mayor?’

Steve Krieg said it was a good question. ‘The answer is no. Any other speakers for or against?’

The mayor put the amendment to the floor. It lost, and debate switched back to the original motion.

Cr Adam Guise spoke against and Cr Gordon spoke for. ‘I’d like it noted that I’m speaking in favour of this motion.

The same old, same old

‘It’s just insane,’ said Cr Gordon. ‘Like, I just sit here and I just listen to the same old same old, from the same old same old that have led us to this point.

‘We’ve been offered a roadmap. You guys had a road map, you were reading it upside down. We’ve got a new roadmap.

‘We need to adapt, we need to look at what we do, recognise there’s a report that says we don’t do it very well. We’re probably never going to do it real well. And here’s an opportunity for us to receive some funding. Yeah, with some conditions. I wouldn’t give you 20 million bucks without any conditions either.

‘We need this. We need to prove to this community that we’re capable of accepting change, accepting criticism of our performance, and recognition that this chamber is dysfunctional. It is. It is, that’s why we need a roadmap. That’s why we need $20 million worth of funding. We’re not making good decisions. We haven’t made good decisions historically. We’ve reached this point. Please approve the motion.’

Not a done deal

At this point Mr Walker said it was not already a done deal. ‘It is not executed. It stayed in my office. I signed as a preparatory in case it went through tonight. It hasn’t been back to the Office of Local Government. It’s a draft.

‘I apologize that it seems to have appeared, I know how it got out, but it was a document on my desk.

‘It can’t be signed unless you sign it. The conditions of the funding agreement are that council must accept it. I don’t have the authority to sign it and the OLG certainly hasn’t signed it either.

‘So unless you give it express authority then it is not signed.’

How would Lismore Council afford it?

Cr Ekins asked that as it was the responsibility of council to fund the project manager position, how was council proposing to do that? And what sort of remuneration would a project manager be expecting?

After some clarifying discussion, Mr Walker said the $20 million would fund a range of positions. ‘A range of consultancies, a range of projects, and the ability to reorganize ourselves is also able to be funded from that $20 million as well. So we’re reorganized and we have to pay redundancies, we have to employ people we have to get consultancies. All of that comes out of $20 million.’

Cr Ekins spoke against the motion. ‘Councillors, I don’t know how you’ve had an opportunity to do your due diligence on this document because it was emailed to us at five o’clock this afternoon.

‘I don’t know how many of you had a chance to read it, but it is really important that you consider what this means. There is funding available. You’ve just heard a lot of it will be spent on wages. And we’ve had no input into what it means.’

Cr Gordon’s comment ‘offensive’

Cr Ekins went on. ‘Now Councillor Gordon was referring to the roadmap that we were reading upside down. Personally, I find that very offensive. Previous council worked very hard on a strategy for sustainability and we had a plan in place and I think it was appalling that the mayor and the deputy mayor didn’t manage to inform themselves about that process. And this council here were uninformed about the strategies that we had in place and what we had planned. You just came in, changed your general manager like that and started off on a new course without informing yourselves about what was actually going on in the organization.

‘Now if we actually had time to have a proper look at that Morrison Low report we might find that there’s some common ground in there. My main concern about that was, it was employing consultants for many, many years to do reports. When I read that list of reports in there, many of them have been done so many times! Why are we paying consultants to do the same report over and over again?

‘We need to just implement some efficiency practices and we need to look very closely at this organization and how it actually operates.

‘I don’t think that you’ve informed yourselves about what we [the last council] were doing. I don’t think you’ve informed yourselves about what’s going on.’

The Morrison Low report

‘This is a very expensive document,’ said Cr Ekins. ‘This is leading us down a very expensive path, and you’re going to get reports out of it. That’s what you’re going get.

‘I think this is a real mistake. I think we should have just deferred this and had a real workshop so we understood what we were signing.’

During the last half hour of the meeting, Cr Krieg appeared increasingly anxious or ill, with body language that suggested he wished he were somewhere else. He said that for the record he would speak for signing the document and put the motion to a vote.

‘All those in favour of adopting this motion? Councillors Gordon, Colby, Hall, Jensen, Bing and Krieg. Those opposed – Councilors Ekins, Cook, Rob and Guise.’

And in the next breath. ‘It’s after 10.30, under Section 18.3, I declare the meeting closed,’ said Mayor Krieg.

And that was that.

Or was it?

The showstopper

Cr Guise asked for a Point of Order and asked the mayor for clarification. ‘My understanding is the requirement that we take a vote on whether we proceed after 10.30. Can you please provide some guidance on the correct meeting procedure rather than unilaterally closing the meeting?’

Mr Walker, who was clearly prepared for the objection, already had the document in hand and the relevant page open before Cr Guise asked the question. ‘Mayor and councillors, we did take advice on this matter. Section 18.3A of the Code of Meeting Practice says: “if the business of the meeting is unfinished at 10.30 and council has not resolved to extend the meeting, the chairperson must either defer consideration of the remaining items of business on the agenda, to the next ordinary meeting of the council, or adjourn the meeting to a time, date and place fixed by the chairperson”.

‘If there had been a resolution of council to extend the meeting, then section 18.3A would not count, but it is lawful and it is done.’

Cr Cook was on her feet and moved to extend the meeting.

Mr Walker said it was already ruled by the chairperson. ‘He has unilateral authority to do it.’

At this point the mayor tidied his papers in preparation to leave, the chamber became a cacophony of objections and disbelief and the public video feed snapped shut.

To see the meeting, visit the Lismore Council Facebook page.

  • UPDATE: There has been a rescission motion lodged on this decision so it will be back on the agenda for the August meeting.

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15 COMMENTS

  1. Why are people complaining about the new council? The previous council was an absolute farce, nothing got done, drove the council in to extreme debt and had so many other issues with it. I praise Steve for being honest in saying that the local council should be sacked! We need the reconstruction commission to forge ahead, not be obstructed by these winging old councillors who are trying to kick up a storm to justify their political status and importance while being a minority in the new council. Lets get things done, something as major as this requires someone to make decisions instead of just sitting on ideas for ever at the local council, nothing will get done just like the last 10 years! I think you will find the majority of the shire are onboard with moving ahead with this model, and are not taking much notice of Adam and Vanessa who are trying to get attention.

    • Vanessa and Adam are actually trying to do what they were elected to do! They are doing their best to speak on behalf of the community that elected them to do so. Because they have objections, they speak, as they are entitled to do. Just because the majority are not with them doesn’t mean they should sit down and shut up, as it seems they are expected to do. We need the voices to represent the diversity in this area.

    • Exactly right MIck; the truth will out.
      I wish this vocal minority would be less belligerent, ‘offended’ and time wasting – why not start to co-operate for a plan to revive Lismore instead of grand-standing & nit-picking?
      Some people need heir sleep – they are working hard next day at 7AM…

  2. Now we get an idea of what the mayor was suggesting on Four Corners.
    LCC gets $20m to pay consultants to give some ideas to the General Manager ( the benevolent dictator). What is achieved? Mayor does not have to take responsibility for anything, just table reports…..may even be something sensible apart from a dam or higher levee to protect the CBD
    How good is democracy, Nationals style!

  3. Looks like a ‘political peel off.’ A trickster cop & robber pay off/pay out.
    State Gove control? I’d bet on that. July meeting??? Nah. More like ‘the
    mad hatter’s tea-party.’ Learn to listen to the women – they are not
    wearing blinkers.

  4. That was less a newspaper article than a (very long and confusing) meeting transcript. It is difficult as a reader to work out what actually occurred. Would be great to have this updated as a news article as the content is clearly important.

  5. Mick, I don’t want the GM or some ‘consultants’ to make the decisions about Lismore’s future. I want the democratically elected Crs to have input.
    You might recall that the’old Council’ did a fairly good job of getting Lismore back to normal after the 2017 flood. They had leadership. He current Mayor seems overwhelmed by the job, and it is no wonder. He should think of his health and resign.

  6. So…..these clowns have $ 20,000,000 to waste on consultants and reports, and no plans to actually do anything .
    Sounds like the last mob to me ! With a new GM with a taste for autocratic rule.
    No Care, and most of all, No Responsibility. Get ready for the hefty rate rise.
    I’m in agreement with the Mayor’s advise, sack the lot of them…… and try real democracy, let the people decide.
    Cheers, G”)

  7. Bullens? Ringling Bros? Barnum & Bailey?

    Nope. The biggest circus in town is the current Lismore City Council.

  8. Lismore Council is like a mob of junkies: “Oh stop oppressing me. I’ve been hanging out here longer than you. Just give me the $50 and p*ss off man. I can look after myself, you know”

  9. We are probably seeing solid foundations being laid: solid foundations to an Australian version of the Disaster Capitalism that plagued New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Being Australia, it’s unfolding more slowly and stealthily than in the US, but it’s happening, and the Morrison Low Report is the keystone in the construction. Those who offer to help a community in distress do not always have the purest of motives. There are those who are not interested so much in rebuilding OUR community as creating another Gold Coast hinterland, and they will strive to demolish as many existing constraints on their ambitions as they can. All of that will be dressed in ‘urgency’, and ‘reducing trauma’ etc , but these are convenient disguises.

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