MOST if not all successful candidates in the recent South Gippsland Shire Council elections took the platform of an ‘open and transparent’ council to the voters as a key commitment.
But they may not have expected their resolve on the subject to be tested as soon as it was, ahead of even sitting down at their first ‘ordinary council meeting’ last Wednesday, by a very formidable local resident, Gus Blaauw of Venus Bay.
Emboldened by the arrival of the new-look regime, Mr Blaauw reiterated a beef he had with the previous council and the existing council bureaucracy, over its failure to release budget details to him last year.
And in a wide-ranging address to last Wednesday’s public presentation session, Mr Blaauw challenged the new councillors not to allow the sort of “disturbing and disgusting response” he was subjected to by key shire staff.
Mr Blaauw alleged that in response to his request for some more in depth information from within the shire’s budget and accounts, he was initially subjected to “obstructive behaviour” and “excessive secrecy”.
He said the council initially claimed it couldn’t release the details for a range of reasons, due to accounting compliance standards and commercial in confidence provisions but he said this was “absolute rubbish” and the new council shouldn’t let its administration get away with it.
He further alleged, referring to a written response from the council, that the shire finally offered to give him the details he requested but, at a sit down meeting with senior shire staff, it would only be on condition that he didn’t “use it to write any articles for the local press or talk to other people about it”.
“I found that to be a disgusting response. No, disturbing would be a better word,” Mr Blaauw said.
“I got up and left without the information. I wasn’t going to have those conditions placed on me. They can’t affect my freedom of speech.”
Mr Blaauw said the council sent him a letter saying that with “goodwill and respect” for the information, the budget details he was seeking could be provided but Mr Blaauw again rejected the conditions.
“What does that even mean?”
Mr Blaauw said one of the things he was seeking was a profile from the council on the number of managers and executive officers the council had and information about the overall cost of the executive group.
He dismissed the council’s claims that he was seeking personal salary details.
“I know from my experience in the corporate world that this shire is too top heavy. They don’t need the number of high-paid managers that they have.”
Speaking to the ‘Sentinel-Times’ later, Mr Blaauw said he was impressed with the attitude of the new council but he claimed the culture of obstruction and secrecy still existed within the administration.
“It has resulted in a great disconnect between the shire and the community and it’s something that needs to be addressed.”
Mr Blaauw said he only started to take an interest in the workings of the council after a bad, personal experience with the shire.
“It took me two years and four months to get a building permit through the council for Venus Bay. I had sold my house in Melbourne in anticipation that I would have the house finished in Venus Bay but because of the delays, I lost $35,000 in rent while I was made to wait.
“They’ll say there were issues with the builder and other things but at the end of the day, they own the process, they could have done more.
“I thought if that’s the way they operate with this, what else are they doing wrong.”
Mr Blaauw said he had a lot of experience with budgets and especially with human resources and if he had access to reasonable information, he could have made a more informed submission to the last budget, especially around the “top heavy” nature of the bureaucracy.
He got a good hearing from the new council.
Cr Meg Edwards said she supported a more open and transparent council.
Cr Jeremy Rich said the new council had transparency as a high priority but admitted it might take time to get cultural change.
“It’s cultural but we will adjust it over time. We don’t want to put things in place that will have implications later but when there is a disconnect with the shire and the community, there is a problem.
“I would like you to follow up with me if you are not getting the response you need,” Cr Rich said.
Cr McEwen asked if he wanted the shire’s management profile benchmarked against industry standards and if on-line access to accounting and budget details would help.
Mr Blaauw said it was more an issue of past councils increasing rates year after year to solve a deep financial problem while failing to control its own excesses, especially the high cost of management.
‘Disturbingly secret’ – Shire watchdog throws out challenge to new council