$108,000 and counting

A final cost for the raft of investigations into code of conduct complaints lodged during the term of the previous Tumut Shire Council is still yet to be determined.

General Manager Bob Stewart on Tuesday provided a mandatory annual report to the council about code of conduct complaint matters that had been lodged during the past 12 months.

There were 18 code of conduct complaints made in the last year, and as yet, none have resulted in any adverse findings against any councillor.

But it has cost the council $108,000 so far in hiring Sydney lawyers HWL Ebsworth to investigate complaints.

That figure is not yet finalised: two matters have been passed onto the Division of Local Government for final determination.

They are the complaints lodged against Ben Dumbrell and John Larter, in respect to a confrontation with the mayor, Trina Thomson, at a media launch two years ago.

HWL Ebsworth lawyer David Baird passed the matters onto the Division of Local Government, after Mr Dumbrell and Mr Larter failed to abide by confidentiality requests made by the investigator.

The other 16 complaints were either dismissed by the general manager Bob Stewart initially; or by the investigator after they were passed on to the Sydney lawyers; or withdrawn by the complainant.

For the first time, HWL Ebsworth has provided a report to the council on two of the complaints, which was published in this week’s council meeting agenda.

The complaints concerned Cr Geoff Pritchard, and both were dismissed.

The first, lodged by Cr Thomson, alleged Cr Pritchard had been disrespectful to the mayor via comments published in this newspaper in an article on May 13, titled Mayor accused of wedge politics.

However, the investigator found Cr Pritchard’s comments were not directed at Cr Thomson; that he’d not accused the mayor of wedge politics as alleged; and that the article in any case did not attribute those words to Cr Pritchard.

The second complaint against Cr Pritchard, lodged in May of last year, was also dismissed, with the investigator finding no breach of  council’s code.

Cr Thomson was the complainant on that occasion also.

She’d alleged Cr Pritchard had acted in an aggressive, rude and intimidating manner towards her at a council meeting on May 24.

But the reviewer found Cr Pritchard’s conduct was reasonable in the circumstances, and he’d not breached the council’s code of conduct.

Cr Pritchard, on Tuesday, asked for a report on the total costs of 18 complaints.

He noted that the cost implications for the council could blow out significantly, given council’s policy to reimburse a councillor’s legal expenses to any councillor defending an action arising from from their performance, in good faith, of the Local Government Act.

“We’re already looking at well over $100,000 for the investigation by the solicitors,” Cr Pritchard said.

“The people who have been accused of misdemeanours have the right to employ legal representatives  … theoretically we could be looking at doubling that amount (the cost of hiring HWL Ebsworth) if council reimburses councillors’ costs as well.”

Cr Pritchard questioned whether too many code of conduct complaints were being passed on for investigation.

Under the process, any complaint first goes to the general manager who, using set criteria, either dismisses the complaint, or passes it onto the relevant body, be it an independent investigator, the Division of Local Government, or ICAC.

“We’ve paid over $100,000 and so far none of those complaints have shown the person to be guilty,” Cr Pritchard said.

“It seems to me extraordinary the number of complaints passed on to these Sydney lawyers with no adverse outcomes.

“To me, that means we’re sending too many on.”