The axing of an independent review into dysfunction at Gore District Council is a backwards move that is not good for transparent local democracy says local-government specialist Andy Asquith.

But Gore Mayor Ben Bell told Newsroom on Wednesday he didn’t know “how much water” Asquith’s opinion held.

“I’ve seen the expert opinions that this would all end disastrously … and that hasn’t been the case.

“Sure, I can see why people are disappointed [the review isn’t going ahead] but a lot of that internal review has been done. We have looked over issues and made some changes,” says Bell.

In April, Bell and councillors agreed to a $130,000 review that was expected to be led by lawyer and former journalist Linda Clark as a measure to restore confidence in the council, which was plagued by clashes between the mayor and chief executive Stephen Parry.

But it took just 1 minute and 23 seconds for the mayor and councillors to quash the idea at a council meeting on Tuesday.

Bell and councillors allowed the review’s motions to lapse without debate. The motions included the independent review’s terms of reference, unbudgeted expenditure and/or the appointment of Clark to lead the process.

Instead the council voted unanimously to receive a letter it sent to the Department of Internal Affairs in August outlining the reasons to scrap the review.

Reasons included the belief that it would be counterproductive to continue with the review due to a concern that it could reignite past events.

Small price for transparency

Asquith, a former director of Massey University’s public management group and now an industry and professional fellow at the Institute of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Technology Sydney, says he’s not surprised the review was “taken off the table” because the council would have just wanted it to go away.

Asquith says $130,000 is a “small price to pay” to ensure better local government and not going ahead with the review raises the question of transparency.

Andy Asquith: scrapping the council review undermines media and public scrutiny. Photo: Supplied

He says the decision to shelve the review weakens local government when it is already precariously placed.

But Bell says the council is trying its best to be transparent.

“Publicising that letter in particular is a sign of that. That was a choice made by us. We didn’t have to publicise that letter.”

A lot of what has happened is already “out in the open” including the difficulties between himself and Parry, says Bell.

Parry tendered his resignation last week.

Asquith says he’s concerned the letter sent to Internal Affairs “tried to cast the blame” for the council’s dysfunction on media scrutiny.

The letter signed by Bell, Parry and Deputy Mayor Keith Hovell on behalf of councillors says the council “has deliberately adopted a low public profile in recent months in a conscious effort to reduce the invasive attention of the media and enable us to focus on moving forward, particularly in relation to business-as-usual activities”.

Asquith says the above statement negates the media’s role and is “somewhat Trumpian in style”.

He says it’s concerning because it implies the media have no right to seek information and neither do the general public.

“These people are in the public domain. Councillors are elected by the public and the public have a right to know what is going on.

“That’s especially so when the turnout is declining in local elections and people don’t vote because they feel excluded.

“Alongside that they feel alienated by the activities of some councils or some councillors or some council employees. To blame the media for reporting … on what is going on is a tad disingenuous to say the least.”

But Bell dismisses “wholeheartedly” any Trumpian flavour to the letter.

“To put some context around that at the time we had both elected members and staff coming out and making very different statements so it was about actually having discussions internally so we were singing from the same song sheet,” he says.

Bell says the council is “turning over a new leaf” with a new councillor and the hunt for a new chief executive.

“I’m feeling much more positive than I did a couple of months ago, he says.

“The council has worked through quite a few issues internally and made some changes and everything seems to be riding a whole lot smoother now.

“There is obviously that risk of everything bubbling up again for sure but there was going to be that risk even with the review.

“So as it is looking at the moment I don’t think so but never say never,” says Bell.

Bell says there is relief among some ratepayers that the review isn’t going ahead.

“I think there will be people out there maybe disappointed about it not going ahead but ultimately our ratepayers in particular are glad that we are not spending $130,000 on a review that may or may not have come up with a whole lot.

“Ultimately with the cost-of-living crisis they and we have better things to spend our ratepayer money on.”

Made with the support of the Public Interest Journalism Fund

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