Right: Crs Catherine Satour and Eli Melky stand up, ready to walk out of council last night. Cr Cocking in the chair was shortly to join them.
REPORT by KIERAN FINNANE
UPDATE, 2.30pm, 15 August 2018: Catering cost and invitation list, including some media, excluding others. See at bottom.
The Town Council is riven by conflict, the painful cracks are only getting wider, and there is no leadership from the top doing anything about it.
Mayor Damien Ryan and CEO Rex Mooney in part are playing a waiting game, when one might think they would be actively seeking to conciliate between parties and help council to move on.
In part they have also exacerbated matters, by introducing new levels of scrutiny at a time when three if not four councillors are feeling under demoralising pressure.
Added to this, they appear to have allowed council to be used to support Jacinta Price’s campaign in the forthcoming Federal election.
As much as council could normally be expected to host the Prime Minister of the country on a visit to town, they allowed last week’s civic reception of the PM to be politicised, giving over its organisation, including invitation list, to Senator Nigel Scullion in tandem with Cr Price, while nonetheless picking up the tab.
Right: Cr Price, CLP candidate for Lingiari, got plenty of campaign mileage out of the Prime Minister’s visit to town. In fact, did the visit have any other purpose? Part of the Advocate’s front page of 10 August.
This came against a backdrop of significant pressure on some councillors relating to Code of Conduct complaints, ongoing since the end of March. When Councillor Eli Melky broke the silence on this at the end of July’s meeting he would not confirm or deny that other councillors were involved. Last night it became clear, when he led a 10-minute walkout from the Finance Committee meeting, that there were.
The walkout came after Cr Melky delivered a fairly detailed written statement, which he said was intended to “push back on the fear and misinformation, division in order to return to a more welcoming and inclusive culture within our council”.
His invitation to join him was to “those members who are adversely affected by those actions, including Code of Conduct notices, bullying, harassment, threat of legal action, excluded from meetings and information, threatened, intimidated.”
As reported last night, he was followed out by Crs Catherine Satour, Jimmy Cocking, and Marli Banks.
After Crs Satour and Banks had stood up to go and then a moment’s hesitation, Cr Cocking had said, from the chair: “In the interest of honesty and truth and to the community I have to stand up too, because I am also facing something, so … a 10 minute recess.”
Outside the chamber Crs Satour and Cocking would make no further comment: they could not, they said, not yet. The implication is clear: they remain subject to a formal process and are bound not to comment until it has been concluded. We can assume they are answering Code of Conduct complaints. Cr Melky had likewise felt constrained from commenting until he was formally cleared.
Cr Banks is not subject to a complaint, she confirmed, but walked out in support and also, as she told Alice Springs News Online, because “I have witnessed or been subject, in my opinion, to some of those behaviours.”
This state of affairs, and the further unsettling, at times ugly episodes of last night’s meeting (dealt with below), make doubtful Mr Mooney’s confidence that “differences” within Council will be resolved any time soon.
During the walkout, the News asked Mayor Ryan what he, as leader of the council, had to say about what was going on.
“I’m waiting for somebody to explain what’s going on, ” he said.
So between a fortnight ago and today he had not had a conversation with Cr Melky about it?
He had spoken to him about other matters but “not about his accusations”. And he thought Cr Melky was calling on the Minister to do an enquiry. Wasn’t that what we had reported at the time?
But doesn’t he see a role for himself, as leader of the council, to address the issue more directly?
“I need information.”
What, he has asked for it and hasn’t been given any?
“No, about 10 minutes ago, Eli delivered something which I have to go into. I couldn’t give you a reply to what Eli has just said, because I didn’t understand half of it. So, I’ll ask for a copy, have a look at it.”
What about what was said a fortnight ago?
“Nothing was delivered to us.”
For the record, Cr Melky has prepared an application to the Minister; it is currently being assessed by a barrister.
The walkout was but the start of last night’s turmoil.
Not long afterwards, Cr Marli Banks said she had questions about the budgeting for council’s reception for Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull last week, but first she was going to raise possible conflicts of interest by councillors, whether personal or financial.
Cr Jacinta Price was the first to be challenged. Cr Price confirmed she had organised part of the PM’s function. Cr Banks said she believed therefore that Cr Price had a conflict of interest. Cr Price looked furious but left the room without comment.
Deputy Mayor Jamie de Brenni was next, as vice-president of the CLP. Given Cr Price is the party’s candidate for Lingiari in the next federal election, he too had a conflict of interest, said Cr Banks.
“No problems,” said Cr de Brenni and left the room.
The third challenge went less smoothly. Cr Banks turned to Mayor Ryan, raising a “perceived” conflict of interest that he has as the father-in-law of Joshua Burgoyne, second Senate candidate for the CLP.
Left: Cr Marli Banks challenging Mayor Damien Ryan on his conflict of interest.
Mayor Ryan said he saw no conflict of interest in “welcoming the Prime Minister of this country to a function there were community members at”.
Cr Banks argued her point: while she had “little to no understanding” of the nature of that reception as she received her invitation to it after it began and she did not attend, the Mayor had a perceived conflict of interest participating in a discussion of the issue.
This was due, she repeated, to his relationship with a CLP candidate and the apparent use of the function to endorse the party’s candidate for Lingiari.
Mayor Ryan countered that he did not recall the PM saying “anything about Josh Burgoyne whatsoever”.
Cr Banks again reiterated her position: that the endorsement of Cr Price was effectively an endorsement of the party and therein, because of his relationship with Mr Burgoyne, lay the perceived conflict of interest for the Mayor.
Cr Melky backed Cr Banks’ position: The Liberal Party Prime Minister came here “promoting Cr Price as a great candidate” and because of the Mayor’s “direct link” to another candidate, he was in conflict. It would be best for him to leave the room, to “allow us to talk openly”.
The Mayor still did not accept that he was in conflict but said he would take direction from the chair.
It was a concern, said Cr Cocking, he would like to see council discuss openly the use of council facilities and resources for an election campaign, the Mayor was not directly involved, rather his son-in-law; he didn’t want to eject him from the room, but given the perception of conflict it might be in the best interest of council for him to choose to leave the room.
The Mayor stood up to go, but said he would not sign a conflict of interest document from the CEO: “I’m not declaring one, I‘m taking your direction.”
Cr Melky raised a procedural issue: if the Mayor was not prepared to sign a conflict of interest, he should remain in the room.
CEO Rex Mooney said codes of conduct and conflicts of interest “boil down to the individual elected member”: “On that basis, if the Mayor chose to leave the room, to go to the bathroom or whatever, the Mayor’s entitled to do so.”
That did not seem to reflect what had just happened, but the discussion moved on, with five councillors in the room and Cr Glen Auricht on the phone.
Cr Banks said she had not raised the conflict of interest issues lightly. Her questions about the reception went to costs for council and whether additional staff, or hours, were involved, given that the invitation was through Nigel Scullion’s office and the topic of conversation seems to have been mainly around endorsement of the candidate for Lingiari.
She also expressed surprise at the late notice of the invitation and noted that her name had been “offered as an apology at the event” although she had not offered an apology.
Mr Mooney’s reply only seemed to confirm the murkiness of council’s involvement: information of the PM’s visit had been provided by Cr Price; it’s not unusual for council to organise a mayoral reception or a civic reception, especially for a Prime Minister; initially council prepared an invitation list; subsequently that was taken over by Senator Scullion’s office; final invitations went out through that office; attendance was by invitation only.
“Following that there was information provided as to who would meet, from council, with the Prime Minister,” he said, without specifying who did the providing and who did the meeting.
Council paid for the catering, he said, in the same way it does for other events, such as a Senior Citizens’ morning tea; he would provide the invoice; there were no additional staff costs as the function took place in working hours.
Cr Melky said he understood he had been announced as present at the reception although he did not attend. He was more concerned to understand, however, given the use of council resources, what benefit the reception had provided to council.
He understood that the PM did not make any particular announcement related to local government.
Had there been a resolution by council or any discussion involving other elected members on the matter?
No, said Mr Mooney.
There was also the matter of the roundtable discussion with the Prime Minister, which “excluded all but three persons elected by this council.”
How were councillors excluded, what was the nature of discussions, what benefit comes back to council? asked Cr Melky, before answering the last question himself.
“Unfortunately I know the answer: there was no benefit to council, there were personal gains in that room.”
The gains, he said, came from being a member of this council, enjoying that privilege to host the Prime Minister whilst being a candidate in the upcoming Federal election.
In what capacity was the Mayor there? he asked. Whom was he representing, given the absence of a resolution and any prior information?
At this point Cr Matt Paterson said he was losing the direction of the conversation, he couldn’t see what the outcome would be. He thought the media the town got from the PM’s visit was “fantastic”: “It was all over the news channels.”
Left: Cr Paterson chats with Cr Cocking after his election to the position of Deputy Mayor, a lighter moment in last night’s proceedings. Also pictured Crs Satour and Melky.
It was fantastic that he was invited, it was a privilege to meet the PM, it was fantastic to see 12 school kids there as well, the captains of the senior schools, and students from Yirara and Clontarf: “I’m sure you can go and ask them if they received any benefit.”
He asked the chair for an action item or recommendation to be identified, otherwise they were going round in circles.
Mr Mooney then tried to deliver “some perspective” into the discussion, repeating that it was not unusual for a civic reception to be held for a visiting Prime Minister. He said council was invited to meet with the PM, “albeit to have a small number”, to go over council matters. The Arunta Room (in the Civic Centre) was then available for other deputations to meet with the PM. That in itself was quite proper.
Cr Melky took up Cr Paterson’s comment: yes, the media was fantastic, “If I was a candidate and my Prime Minister came and gave me a rousing applause, I would think that was a good thing.” Otherwise, it was a missed opportunity for the majority on council, who were excluded from the roundtable discussion.
Cr Cocking then asked Cr Banks if she had an action item so the meeting could move on.
She answered by going over the reasons for her concern, which in summary were that she as a councillor and also as a member of the Regional Economic Development Committee felt doubly excluded from the proceedings and left guessing at what might have been discussed around, for example, a possible Regional Deal.
Yes, it was an honour to have the Prime Minister visit the town but she would have hoped for far more in outcomes from the occasion, like the Barkly region had managed to win from their recent prime ministerial visit.
She had seen one announcement of a small amount of funding for landcare to come out of the visit; what she saw otherwise was endorsement of the candidate for Lingiari, Cr Price.
Cr Cocking summed up, asking the CEO for clarification of costs, which Mr Mooney said he would give, no problem, and for some information to come back to council on the outcome of the roundtable discussion. Earlier, Mr Mooney had said he had taken a few notes from that discussion, so presumably these will be reported to council.
With that, Mayor Ryan and Crs Price and de Brenni returned to the room and soon Cr Price took the chair of the Corporate and Community Services committee.
Right: Mayor Ryan, during the debate on attendance procedures he has introduced into council, getting on with a bit of reading.
Councillors got on with business. They elected a new Deputy Mayor, Matt Paterson, astutely nominated by Cr Jimmy Cocking, as a candidate acceptable to both sides of the split – that he can occupy this position reflects credit on the young councillor. They also filled all the various committee positions (which come up for election every year).
Other business was discussed, the most important of it being support for the formation of a working group to develop council’s own stand-alone youth division and explore how it can best contribute to youth services in town.
However, the ugly rift on council again surfaced when Cr Melky brought up two related matters: the new procedure for putting to a vote councillors’ apologies for non-attendance of a meeting; and the new reporting of attendance records for all committees, in published charts full of ticks and crosses, just like a school roll, a point made by Cr Satour. Volunteer community members of the committees are included in these records, similarly with ticks and crosses against their names.
In the interest of bringing this already lengthy report to a conclusion, the grievance over these measures was down, in the main, to them having been introduced without any consultation or notice.
The decision to do so was taken by Mr Mooney and Mayor Ryan. There was no necessity in it, given that council has gotten on well enough without them for years; and the intervention from the department on the subject was in the form of “a suggestion or request”, as Mr Mooney explained, it was not a directive.
Introducing the measures at a time when there were already significant tensions within the council, related to the Codes of Conduct complaints, has only served to increase the tensions and division. That can’t be good for council and it’s no way to lead.
The debate, which came after the meeting had already been going for about three hours, degenerated into a slanging match between Cr Melky and Mayor Ryan. Cr Price, in the chair, eventually brought it to a close, directing a comment to Cr Melky about bringing council into disrepute.
Clearly, he should not bear sole responsibility for that.
UPDATE, 2.30pm, 15 August 2018:
Council CEO Rex Mooney has provided the following information on request from Alice Springs News Online.
The catering invoice for the civic reception of the Prime Minister was $1409.91, to be met from Council’s General Fund for Civic Activities.
The final invitation list with contact details for the function was managed and decided by the office of Senator Nigel Scullion.
UPDATE, 2.30pm, 16 August 2018:
The media section of the Office of the Prime Minister has expressed regret to have inadvertently omitted our email address from its media alert.