Bat in the Belfry
Pong police, another fiscal fiasco and Dow re-enters fray
I THOUGHT I was the only mad bat in the belfry but it seems I am mistaken.
There appears to be at least one other, and the good citizens of Toodyay should be afraid, be very afraid.
“Any person who by violence, or by threats or intimidation of any kind, hinders or interferes with the free exercise of any political right by another person, is guilty of a crime, and is liable to imprisonment for 3 years (Section 75 of the Criminal Code).”
These words were presented to last month’s council meeting by Shire Chief Executive Officer Stan Scott in a report titled “Managing Public Question Time”.Read more
You may wonder what sparked this dire warning in the normally staid council chamber.
Is there a subversive plot to undermine the fabric of Toodyay society?
Has a terrorist cell infiltrated the former court house where our council now meets?
No, it’s all to do with suppressing dissent in the public gallery if people get too cranky about questions not answered properly and have to be told to sit down and shut up.
Pong police: The CEO also wants to enforce a dress code – no thongs, singlets or hats, and – if you’re found to be too smelly in some yet-to-be-announced council pong test – the shire’s personal hygiene enforcement squad will turf you out.
All this is meant to underpin plans for a ‘brief’ statement covering eight points that CEO Scott wants the Shire President to read out before every public question time.
Instead of wasting time on such tripe, question time could be vastly improved if ratepayers simply got clear, straightforward answers to their questions.
Guillotine plea: Leading Toodyay farmer and former shire council member Frank Panizza urged councillors – even if they found public question time uncomfortable – not to support CEO Scott’s proposed new 15-minute time limit on public questions if the intent was to impose a guillotine.
Toodyay Progress Association Chair Larry Graham said limiting public question time was not a good look for a shire that has been placed on notice by the WA Local Government Department to lift its game or face further action.
Deputy Shire President Therese Chitty said community members had told her that they don’t attend council meetings any more – despite a packed public gallery filled with 22 visitors – because “they don’t enjoy public question time”.
Oh for the good old days when the gallery was usually near-empty, nobody asked questions and everyone went home happy.
Councillors voted 6-1 (Cr Ben Bell against) to back CEO Scott’s recommendation to seek public comment on restricting public questions.
Sorry Bat: In last month’s column, I claimed mistakenly that the cost to ratepayers of the shire’s failed legal action against local gravel supplier Warragenny Holdings was $19,300.
Regular readers will recall that the shire sued Warragenny over an alleged business debt of $14,300 for the supply of gravel for community recovery operations after Toodyay’s catastrophic 2009 bushfire which destroyed 38 homes.
After nine months’ acrimonious dispute in the Perth Magistrate’s Court, councillors went behind closed doors last June to vote 8-1 to settle the case for $5500, with no admission of liability by Warragenny.
In my defence, it is usually near-impossible to obtain any meaningful information about financial matters from this supposedly ‘open and transparent’ council, and after several months of public questions and convoluted answers, I thought I finally had it right.
However, CEO Scott dropped yet another fiscal bombshell last month when he revealed that total shire spending on the case was a whopping $80,000 in lawyers’ fees, which means the cost to ratepayers was actually $74,000 – nearly four times more than originally thought.
CEO Scott and former shire president David Dow – who attended last month’s meeting as a visitor – must have known this all along but failed to disclose it before last October’s shire elections when Mr Dow lost his Central Ward seat to former Cr Di Granger, who resigned last month after CEO Scott sent her an excoriating email.
If our shire council was a business, it would surely be bankrupt by now.
But unlike in business where aggrieved shareholders would demand scalps, all our councillors do is keep raising rates.
Loaded question: Former shire president Dow used last month’s public question time to ask about another costly legal fiasco, this time in the WA Supreme Court against former shire CEO Graham Merrick.
Mr Dow and CEO Scott spent four years running the case, which ended up costing ratepayers more than half a million dollars without any public explanation of why.
The amount is currently being audited after persistent public questioning about the real cost, which Mr Dow repeatedly refused to reveal in public question time when he was shire president.
Ironically, he is now asking the council – which includes his wife, Cr Judy Dow – to release confidential information from a special council meeting he called on 7 November 2013, about two weeks after he was first elected shire president.
There were no visitors in the public gallery that day, and the main agenda item – ‘Considering Legal Advice’ – was discussed for nearly two hours behind closed doors.
No motion was publicly recorded, and the outcome was never publicly revealed.
However, Mr Dow chaired that meeting and knows exactly what happened.
He would also have his own copy of the minutes in a red folder marked ‘Confidential Information’, so why ask five years later for it to be released?
Could it have anything to do with a fresh election for his former Central Ward seat, which he lost to former Cr Granger last October?
Watch this space.