Ol’ Blind Joe
Lucy in the sky
By Stirling Hamilton
THAT DAMN provincial pedant editor of mine has blown a gasket again and exiled me to the dungeon to dwell again among the ghosts of councils past.
I’ve spent decades researching these crooked bookshelves of agendas, minutes, and rules to reveal hidden truths in the dusty pages of administrative malfeasance.
Well, lo and behold, the new Report of the Inquiry into the Shire of Toodyay has appeared on my reading desk.
While I will be accurate, I’ll be feasting on the moral carcasses of some very naughty people.Read more
I regret the report begins with the exit of former Toodyay shire CEO Graham Merrick (2004- 2010).
I would dearly love to perform a forensic autopsy on his performance – and in particular his planning department – but I will confine myself to this report.
It says that upon Mr Merrick’s departure, the shire found it had “inadvertently” made an overpayment of $150,000 to him.
The matter was settled for an undisclosed sum in February 2017 by which stage legal costs alone had escalated to $547,923.27, with those monies being paid to Perth law firm Civic Legal and others.
The inquiry notes that of the $1.9 million spent by subsequent former CEO Stan Scott on 13 legal firms, nearly 40 per cent went to Civic Legal which employed his son as Special Counsel and which “seemed more prevalent than the others”.
While not illegal, it was an undocumented conflict of interest that was not put to council, unethical and “not behaviour that should be expected of a CEO”.
Another legal debacle – and there were lots of them – was the peculiar incident in 2018 when former Toodyay shire president Allan Henshaw got a $60 ticket when his car was briefly parked facing the wrong way in Stirling Terrace outside the town’s pharmacy.
Mr Henshaw’s daughter, who lives in England, wrote to the shire that she was the driver, and any correspondence should be sent to her UK address because she wanted to appeal the fine.
However, the shire issued her father with a final demand for payment and he elected to take the matter to court.
It ended up costing the shire $5381 in legal expenses, which the inquiry said was “excessive” and an error that Mr Scott refused to admit when he was later questioned about it at a council meeting.
By then Mr Scott had already established a reputation as a litigious big spender.
It had its genesis in 2009, when Toodyay suffered a catastrophic bushfire that destroyed 38 houses.
The shire paid $13,000 to contractor Charlie Wroth – who was a shire councillor at the time – to deliver gravel to help emergency recovery operations.
Mr Scott alleged five years later that the gravel was not delivered.
His complaint to the WA Corruption and Crime Commission was referred to State Police who found no proof the gravel had not been delivered and closed the file.
Undeterred, Mr Scott spent a total of $82,470 pursuing the claim through the WA Supreme Court and Perth Magistrates Court before settling the case for $5500.
Another legal disaster that cost the shire thousands of dollars concerned two dogs that it impounded for 13 months over an alleged attack on sheep.
A Northam magistrate described the case as “concerning and problematic” and said the shire had acted duplicitously because the dog owner had already paid two fines and settled the matter.
Mr Scott had to withdraw the case after spending $36,000 on Perth lawyers.
He later told the inquiry the “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” and claimed that “the matter was handled appropriately”.
Lucy in the sky with diamonds.
Alice and I are walking through the looking glass to see what sense might be found in that statement.
Yet another costly screw-up was shire opposition to planning approval for two horses which cost it $30,688 in legal expenses over five years of “inconsistent dealings” before the approval was granted.
Then we come to former Cr Di Granger who soundly defeated former shire president David Dow in the October 2017 council elections, resigned four months later amid allegations of bullying and formally complained to Perth local government officials about shire dysfunction.
She said the council’s culture was “a working environment created by the CEO and other members of council highly demoralising at best or toxic at worst”.
Now over the years I have witnessed this toxic culture first-hand and can attest to the dear lady’s veracity and commiserate with her.
We elect councillors hoping they will represent us honestly to the best of their abilities.
The irony is they enter a former courthouse where the power behind the throne sits to one side but pulls the strings.
Councillors delegate all day-to-day authority to the CEO who runs the joint.
Bullies may stomp and yell, but their words will always ring hollow.
Like lambs to the slaughter, innocent councillors who embarked on a quest to serve their community ended up being berated and harangued by those who hold power.
The inquiry confirmed what we already knew, that “There are indications the relationship between the Council and CEO was not functioning as per the requirements of the LG Act which should be one of employer and employee”.
It’s not hard to see who has served power and who has served the people.
Suffice to say long may the once-threatened tall trees that fringe Anzac Memorial Park sway in the breeze.
Vale also to my friend, former Cr Chris Firns, who would have loved to have seen this day.
Chris could certainly be obdurate, but you could never say he was ignorant.
The midnight hour might beckon at council meetings but he still had six more points of order to raise while visibly annoyed administrators squirmed with eyes cast heavenward.
Finally, I’m glad to see Herald Treasurer Beth Ruthven is now serving on the council as Audit Committee Chair – I know from personal experience that her pernickety attention to detail cannot be disputed.
This augurs well for all Toodyay ratepayers and our community as a whole as we drag ourselves out of this shameful mess.
Every man is guilty of all the good he did not do – French philosopher Voltaire (1694-1778).