“Minister Knoll must resolve Coober Pedy Council uncertainty.”
The South Australian Parliament is still procrastinating over an Ombudsman investigation into the Coober Pedy Council that began in October 2016 and completed in July 2018 recommending that the Council be declared a defaulting council and replaced with an administrator. The Ombudsman identified 25 failings.
Due to the seriousness of the Ombudsman’s findings, residents in Coober Pedy believe that the Minister for Local Government Stephan Knoll has not acted promptly and has allowed the Council, found to have committed serious Maladministration to continue making decisions, many of which may become the subject of investigation.
In his report Ombudsman Mr. Wayne Lines states: “This remains one of the most serious examples of maladministration in public administration I have observed since the relevant provisions of the ICAC Act were enacted.”
State Parliament has had several years to address the problems at Coober Pedy and Local Member Eddie Hughes has copped the brunt of resident complaints for a good part of that time and presented two petitions to Parliament on behalf of the constituents.
From 2015 onward residents have complained of Council’s toxic culture, bullying, abuses of power, selective employment, nepotism, incompetence; lack of accountability, anti-free enterprise, anti-small business, reduction in services, secrecy, evasiveness, wasteful spending, conflicts of interest, litigation mentality and lack of direction.
Among the many pleas for relief, the petitions stated, “Local council problems in the current climate poses a serious threat to community services, losses to quality of life/ health, employment, private and business investments.”
The first petition was presented to Parliament in 2015 by Mr. Eddie Hughes, and a second petition was presented in 2017. During the collecting of signatures community members complained of being intimidated and signed pages were blatantly “removed” from venues.
Last year the member for Giles, Eddie Hughes, called for the dismissal of the Coober Pedy Council in order to provide a circuit breaker for the local community.
Mr Hughes said this week, “Minister Knoll must resolve Coober Pedy Council uncertainty.”
PETITION 1: District Council of Coober Pedy
Requesting the House to urge the Government to support an investigation into the current practices of the District Council of Coober Pedy as they particularly relate to governance issues, with a view to appointing an administrator to act on our behalf.
No. 52 Presented by Mr E J Hughes from 157 Resident of Coober Pedy and greater South Australia 14-10-15
PETITION 2: Coober Pedy Council
Requesting the House to urge the Government to take immediate action to replace the Coober Pedy Council with a public administrator
No. 98 Presented by Mr E J Hughes from 169 Residents of Coober Pedy and greater South Australia 14-11-17
Along with the stalling includes the constant wheeling out of an ever-imminent Auditor General’s Report that sees Coober Pedy residents and ratepayers reluctantly faced with local government elections and quite difficult choices, according to most. Why not deal with each on its merit?
Minister Knoll is currently considering a submission sent to him by the DCCP under the signature of Acting CEO, Colin Pitman who is holding the fort at Council until a suitably qualified person can be found through the legislative recruitment process, or an experienced Administrator appointed to sort out council’s affairs.
The DCCP submission reinforces the Ombudsman’s finding where Wayne Lines states, “I remain concerned that the elected body appears unwilling to accept ownership and responsibility for the decision to execute the agreement.”
Knoll however said he wanted to give the submission more careful consideration, thus compounding the anxt for businesses and pensioners in the town, now subjected to escalating charges, as council reaches into the pockets of low income earners to pay for its accumulated debts and unexplained spending.
What is there to consider anyway? Despite the obvious blame game and lack of attention in addressing the 25 serious issues identified by the Ombudsman, the Council have suddenly welcomed Administration, citing financial issues. However, Item 3.3 “Potential Litigation” Agenda 28th September 2018 SCM, may well be the real cause.
Minister KNOLL’s statement: On 2 October 2018, I received a submission from the District Council of Coober Pedy, referred to now as ‘the council’. As members are aware, the council’s submission related to a final report from the Ombudsman that identified a range of errors and failures on the part of the council as it undertook a critical procurement process. This report raised serious issues around the operation of the council.
The submission was provided in response to a letter that I sent to the council indicating my view that the Ombudsman’s final report identified serious irregularities in the conduct of the affairs of the council and that I was therefore considering taking action under section 273 of the Local Government Act 1999 to recommend to the Governor that the council be declared defaulting.
The council’s submission raises a number of matters that I am giving careful consideration to before making a decision on any possible action. I am aware that the election process is underway in Coober Pedy, as for all councils across South Australia, and that the Coober Pedy community, candidates for office and voters, need clarity about the current election process and whether it will proceed.
Given that the election process has started, I do not intend to take action before it is complete. Following the election, I will provide the council with an opportunity to make a further submission to me as soon as possible before I decide on the most appropriate course of action to take. I acknowledge that this process may seem to be long.
However, any decision to recommend that a council be declared defaulting, and that an administrator be appointed, is a very serious one. It is therefore critical that my decision-making process is fair and ensures that all relevant information and views are properly considered.
Eddie Hughes said, “In response to the Minister, the council has supported being put into administration and this should happen as quickly as possible. I fully recognise that there needs to be due process, but for the community this has dragged on for far too long.”
“Some of the obligations the council has had to shoulder are responsibilities that no other council in the state has to meet. For example, the council runs a range of essential services, including water, sewerage and electricity,” he said.
“Early this year, I called for those responsibilities to be put in the hands of organisations with the capacity to effectively fund and operate these essential services.”
“Expecting a small, remote council with a limited rate base to operate essential services is not acceptable. The sooner the council goes into administration the better for all concerned,” said Mr. Hughes.
Labor is calling on the Minister for Local Government Stephan Knoll to act quickly to resolve the uncertainty about the future of the Coober Pedy Council.
Over recent years the council has suffered from a revolving door of CEOs, senior officers and Mayors, which has resulted in instability and added to the challenges of a remote community with a small rate base.
The previous Labor government initiated an Auditor General’s investigation of the council. In addition, the Ombudsman undertook an investigation.
Subsequently, the Ombudsman invited Minister Knoll to consider recommending to the Governor that the council be declared to be defaulting on the Local Government Act 1999. Minister Knoll then wrote to the council asking it to provide reasons why it shouldn’t be replaced with an administrator.