Blue Mountains City Council


Media Statement: Mayor

19 December 2017

BMCC Makes Strong Case in Defence of Democracy

At an extraordinary Council meeting in front of yet another packed gallery, Blue Mountains City Council endorsed a submission to a the Minister for Local Government, Gabrielle Upton MP, addressing the notice of intention to suspend the elected councillors and appoint an interim administrator for a period of three months.

Mayor, Cr Mark Greenhill, said, “I believe there is no basis upon which the Minister may properly suspend the elected body of the Council. The Council’s submission makes a strong case to address the Minister concerns and shows that suspending the Council is resoundingly the wrong thing to do.

The Minister considers the move to be necessary to restore the proper and effective functioning of the Council with the Ministers’ concerns largely relating to Council’s management of asbestos. The Council has 7 days to respond to the Notice.

There is no doubt that Council, like all councils in NSW, has a significant challenge in managing asbestos in our City. It is a big problem and we take it very seriously. The Council has recognised in recent months that we have had weaknesses in dealing with asbestos and we needed to improve. As soon as we became aware of this, we took immediate action to improve Council’s systems and processes – the very thing the Minister wants us to do.

We have made it abundantly clear that it is the number one priority of the Council. The Minister has acknowledged in her Notice that the Council is taking steps to respond to both SafeWork NSW and the EPA, including through appointment of the then new Acting General Manager.

I am confident that there is nothing more that the Council can do, over and above what it is already doing, to deal with the asbestos management issues. If there is anything else the minister wants, we will do it.

The elected Council has taken all actions that the Minister could reasonably expect it to take in response to the challenges that the Council faces. It has acted in precisely the way that is required by the Local Government Act.

We are putting an alternative proposal to the Minister to show how serious we are about this. Rather than suspending the Council unnecessarily, we are inviting the Minister to issue the Council with a Performance Improvement Order and appoint a temporary advisor with the requisite experience in safety and asbestos management to improve our management of asbestos guided.

We are willing to go further than that. The Council stands ready and willing to enter into an enforceable undertaking with SafeWork NSW, at the conclusion of the independent investigation now being conducted. That enforceable undertaking would bind the Council to adopt and implement the recommendations of the independent investigation.

As Liverpool City Council addresses its substantial asbestos problems it sought an Enforceable Undertaking in working with the regulator.

This approach is a more targeted and effective response to the Minister’s concerns, recognising the seriousness of asbestos management and reflects the Council’s intention to place the safety of its staff and community at the centre of its operations and organisational culture.

Given the Minister’s concerns are about our performance are confined to asbestos management, and not the general function of the Council, adopting the Performance Management framework is more likely to achieve the necessary outcomes than suspending the elected body.

The Minister will be aware of the NSW Ombudsman’s Report into Asbestos (April 2017) called ‘How NSW Government Agencies deal with the problem”. Interestingly, the report identifies some of the challenges faced by the local government sector in asbestos management, noting that as of August 2016, only 62 out of 152 councils had promulgated the Model Asbestos Policy as required by the Office of Local Government, the very model on which the Blue Mountains Asbestos Management Plan is based.

So, as the NSW Government deals with the problems faced by Parramatta City Council managing potentially contaminated properties on sites that at one time were used for the disposal of James Hardie asbestos products, and ongoing improvements by Liverpool City Council among others, clearly, the suspension of elected councils for operational matters will not be effective mechanism going forward.

The suspension of the Councillors will mean the loss to the City of its elected representatives. The Council is financially sound. The Council has been recognised as ‘fit for the future’. It just doesn’t make sense.

The residents of the City should not lose the benefit of representation by their Councillors based on the Minister’s concerns. The loss of the elected Councillors will mean that many issues of great importance to the residents of the City will come before an unelected Ministerial appointee for determination, someone who is unlikely to understand their community's characteristics and needs and the types of services required to meet those needs.

This is unacceptable to me as Mayor. It is unacceptable me as a local resident. It is unacceptable to our elected Councillors. More importantly, it is unacceptable to the Blue Mountains community, as shown by the overwhelming support for the Council and the strong objection to the Minister’s proposed suspension of their democratically elected representatives.

Our submission makes a very strong case that there is nothing to be gained, indeed there is much to be lost, by the removal of an effective and highly functional council. It should not be possible for democracy to removed so easily.”