Months after we asked
HOT on the heels of the explosive inquiry into a ‘poorly led, divided and…dysfunctional’ City of Perth, the bizarrely secretive machinations of Cockburn council could be blown open by a new state government probe.
The council has now quietly admitted it too is under investigation by WA’s local government department following a series of extraordinary scandals which included:
• its former CEO being stood down on full pay for six months, then sacked, after claiming his workplace was unsafe;
• councillors suing each other over defamation;
• a former deputy mayor being suspended after refusing to abide by an order to apologise to a colleague;
• the mayor, two councillors and the CEO’s acting replacement facing a Fair Work Commission investigation into allegations they’d bullied the former CEO;
• a series of secretive “special meetings” with a phalanx of expensive lawyers; and,
• the council so tied in knots that its monthly debate over the relatively benign “statement of financial activity” on June 11 being deemed too sensitive or ratepayers.
When directly asked by the Herald on April 23 if it was being subjected to an inquiry, Cockburn refused to answer, but it has now emerged it had already received an email from the local government department a week earlier announcing just that.
The council waited two months until June 24 – just as Western Australians were celebrating the further easing of Covid-19 restrictions that would see pubs reopen – to announce, in a tiny notice in the news section of its website, that an inquiry had been called.
In the notice, the city claims to have no idea what the enquiry is about, stating it had “not been provided with any details as to the number of complaints, what the complaints were about, the timeframe that the complaints cover, or which areas of council’s operations they related to”.
But just a day after receiving the department’s email, the council held another behind-closed-doors meeting to discuss a “confidential staff matter” which was attended by
Ron Murphy, the manager of the local government department’s “investigations and assessment unit”; he conducted the inquiry into Melville last year.
The meeting was conducted via video conference and councillors were instructed to confirm their locations were “safe and secure for the purposes of ensuring the integrity of the meeting procedures”, even being told to turn off their mobile phones and other electronic devices.
As soon as the e-meeting went ‘behind closed doors’ at 7.48pm, even the official minute taker had to leave, though three lawyers from Jackson McDonald stayed online. Councillors Lee-Anne Smith and Kevin Allen declared impartiality interests.
Mr Murphy was also specifically requested by Department of Local Government director general Warwick Agnew to attend another closed meeting on May 14 “during discussion and consideration of the proceedings behind closed doors” but for unknown reasons he wasn’t there; perhaps the 12.27am finish time was a deterrent.
This time there were three confidential items, with one matter only decided following a casting vote of mayor Logan Howlett and the usual procedural tick-off at the end of the meeting that everything had been “managed efficiently and effectively”, only just getting up with a 5/4 vote. Those who weren’t convinced included councillors Michael Separovich, Phoebe Corke, Chamonix Terblanche and Chontelle Stone. Mr Howlett was supported by his deputy Lara Kirkwood and councillors Kevin Allen, Lee-Anne Smith and Philip Eva to get it passed.
by JUSTIN STAHL and STEVE GRANT