Councillors were sharply divided at tonight’s meeting in Flinders on whether Cr Antonella Celi should have to repay her overspend of an allowance. The matter was decided on the casting vote of mayor Graham Pittock when the vote was deadlocked at 5-all. He ruled that Cr Celi must pay.
Cr Celi, declaring she had a conflict of interest, was absent from the chamber. She left before debate on the item.
The Notice of Motion that brought the issue to a head had to be amended shortly before the meeting, from specifying a precise repayment of $12,520.11 to a mentioning a sum in excess of $19,500, when it became clear the shire did not yet have a definitive figure of the overspend. It became aware of the issue in early February.
Councillors are allowed $16,000 over four years to attend seminars and conferences. Mayors are allowed a further $3500. Cr Celi was mayor several years ago.
It is believed the Celi repayment obligation is in the region of $9000.
Supporters of Cr Celi argued in part that shire legal advice — which remains secret — stated she was not obliged to repay. The advice was provided by the large city law firm Maddocks. Cr Anne Shaw also told the meeting there was no cap on the conference and seminar allowance. Cr Bev Colomb argued that the entire councillor allowance matter was in a mess and needed sorting out. Cr David Garnock described the motion, from Cr Hugh Fraser, as “divisive and obnoxious”.
The state of the shire records is such that it has not yet – since early February – been able to produce a definitive overspend figure, despite continuing investigations and employing a team of casual workers who have gone back over nearly four years of invoices and other councillor spending records.
Those arguing that Cr Celi should repay recalled the meeting in December when council debated approving the Paris climate change conference attended by Cr Fraser and Cr Pittock. Then, Cr Shaw argued forcefully – supported by shire governance manager Mr Joe Spiteri – that any spending above $16,000 must be repaid. No doubts existed then that the allowance was capped at $16,000.
In a meeting last month, several councillors including Cr Lynn Bowden and Cr Colomb made a strong point of councillors’ obligation to spend their allowances responsibly, considering that it was ratepayers’ money. They also argued it was councillors’ responsibility to ensure they did not overspend.
Cr Colomb last night accused “the Press” – staring at this writer – of publishing inaccurate information in reports that set off the overspending issue. In fact, the information published was from a shire document presented to councillors in late January this year. The material it contained was accurately reported, as all councillors knew or should have known: any mistakes in it were, and remain, the shire’s responsibility.
Cr Tim Wood got to the heart of the matter when he said that the matter could easily be remedied by Cr Celi voluntarily repaying the money she had overspent. It was, he said, a moral rather than a legal issue.
This writer agrees. Ratepayers barely got a look-in during the debate, which may be of interest to those who, elderly, ailing and scraping by on pitiful pensions, may be forced to turn off the lights and go to bed early in the coming winter months because they can’t afford the electricity and gas at the levels required for a comfortable and dignified old age.
Perhaps the councillors who argued against repayment of the overspend can contemplate that thought when next they press the “On” button on their space heaters. They may also contemplate the disgust and disbelief their stance could cause in the community, six months out from a council election, not just against them but against all councillors.
For the record, those opposed to Cr Celi repaying the overspend were councillors Anne Shaw, Andrew Dixon, Bev Colomb, David Garnock and David Gibb.
Those who voted for repayment were councillors Tim Wood, Lynn Bowden, Tim Rodgers, Hugh Fraser (who moved the motion) and Graham Pittock. Cr Pittock then used his casting vote to ensure the repayment resolution was approved.
David Harrison