By Michael Sinclair-Jones
THE STATE Government has ordered a formal inquiry into the internal workings of the Shire of Toodyay based on “reasonable suspicion the council has breached” WA local government laws and regulations.Read more
The State inquiry follows nearly a year of shire monitoring by the WA Local Government Department which Shire CEO Stan Scott claimed was an administrative matter, details of which he refused initially to reveal to councillors.
The department wrote to Mr Scott last January sharply criticising the shire for non-compliance in a number of key areas, including rates, land dealings and transparency in council decision making.
The State Government said the shire had shown “not only a lack of understanding of the provisions of legislation but also a propensity to misinterpret other legalities and procedures”.
Mr Scott used the shire’s ratepayer-funded March 2018 newsletter to attack The Toodyay Herald for reporting an implied warning in the State Government’s letter that the shire risked a future formal inquiry.
It followed the shock resignation of newly elected Cr Di Granger after she received a blistering Saturday afternoon email from Mr Scott for questioning why councillors were not allowed to see the Local Government Department’s letter notifying the shire that it was being monitored.
Mr Scott claimed he was being bullied and accused Cr Granger of having “very little understanding of local government – “really, how would you know what was unusual behaviour,” he wrote.
“I expect that council leadership will immediately jump on inappropriate and ill-informed criticism such as that contained in your latest email.”
He was backed a few hours later by Cr Paula Greenway, who sent a secret Saturday night email marked “confidential and urgent” to five other councillors, noting that she had deliberately excluded Cr Granger and fellow new Cr Ben Bell from her email but didn’t explain why.
Cr Greenway asked if the others supported her “concern” that Mr Scott had been bullied by Cr Granger’s email.
“It is our responsibility to provide a safe workplace for employees and it is obvious this is building stress in our CEO,” Cr Greenway said.
“What happens if Worksafe (WA’s workplace safety regulator) were to be called into this mess?”
‘Out of control’
Shire Deputy President Therese Chitty responded next day (Sunday March 11) that the situation had “escalated out of control” but Cr Granger had done “nothing “inappropriate” and the CEO’s email to her was “less than professional”.
“All Cr Granger has done is ask questions because this is part of our roles as councillors,” Cr Chitty said.
“She (Cr Granger) has been thwarted at every opportunity by the CEO.
“I have noticed this at meetings, and Cr Granger’s response to the CEO’s email has confirmed this.
“I have to say that I believe Cr Granger is in need of support from the President by addressing this with the CEO.”
President Brian Rayner emailed all councillors that Sunday night that he was trying to organise a meeting “facilitator” and would seek assistance “on this urgent matter before it escalates into a City of Perth (also under inquiry) event.”
“I am aware that councillors and administration staff alike are stressed to the max, but believe me I do not want anyone on stress leave.”
Cr Granger resigned two days later, saying “the joy has been sucked out of my life and I want it back”.
She emailed President Rayner that “the level of aggression that I have experienced is astounding, appalling and I am horrified”.
R U OK?
Mr Scott then used WA’s ‘R U OK?’ campaign to again attack The Herald in the shire’s April newsletter and claim he was being bullied in a smear campaign to damage his “impeccable” reputation in local government.
This was despite the State Government’s criticism of Mr Scott’s administration only two months earlier, causing it to be placed under Local Government Department monitoring for almost a year before this month’s “authorised inquiry” into “reasonable suspicion” of breaches of local government law.
These and several other matters are now being examined by three local government investigators who have been given powers to enter shire premises, seize shire property – including staff and councillors’ computers, phones, iPads and emails – inspect records held by banks and other financial institutions, and question staff and councillors under oath.
The inquiry covers all current and former councillors and staff from 1 January 2013 to the present, and includes the loss of at least $550,000 of ratepayers’ money in a failed bid to sue former shire CEO Graham Merrick.
It is understood the awarding and management of shire contracts will also be examined.
In response to Herald questions, the Local Government Department said:
“The nature of the inquiry will ascertain whether the Shire council and administration are functioning in the best interests of the community and into the operations and affairs of the Shire in relation to:
- “The adequacy of and adherence to council policies and procedures by both elected members and administration staff;
- “Enforcement actions undertaken by the Shire of Toodyay;
- “The function of the audit committee;
- “Declarations of interests by elected members;
- “The culture within the Shire; and
- “Any other matter that comes to the person’s attention during the inquiry under section 8.4(2) of the Local Government Act 1995.
“As this is an ongoing investigation, it would not be appropriate to comment further.”
‘Clear the decks’
The shire’s December newsletter said “the inquiry provides the opportunity to clear the decks so to speak”.
“We will cooperate fully with the inquiry and use the findings to provide improvements,” an unnamed spokesperson said.
“There is no one in the administration or council who has been involved in a previous inquiry so it will be a new experience for all of us.”
Shire President Rayner told the council’s December meeting that “the shire is under an inquiry and we will not be giving a running commentary on what is going on”.
Toodyay joins four other WA councils now under formal State Government inquiry.
Perth investigators have started interviewing several Toodyay people on a variety of separate matters and it is understood the inquiry may take several months to complete.
A final report will be delivered to WA Local Government Director General Duncan Ord and a copy sent to State Local Government Minister David Templeman.
Mr Templeman has the power to suspend or dismiss a council, order remedial action or refer matters for prosecution.
Local government law says a council may be required to pay for all or part of the cost of an inquiry if there is an adverse finding against the council or any councillor or employee.