FOI LODGED ON COUNCILLOR OVERSPEND ADVICE

A Freedom of Information request has been lodged with Mornington Peninsula Shire Council seeking details of the instructions shire officers provided to law firm Maddocks Lawyers, “in particular in relation to Cr [Antonella] Celi’s expenditure … on conferences, seminars and the like”.

Maddocks had responded to the shire instructions on 7 March with a legal opinion stating that Cr Celi was not legally obliged to repay an alleged overspend of some $9020 in her conferences and seminars allowance.

We think that the relevant expenses have been lawfully approved by resolution of Council and therefore incurred with the appropriate authority,” its summary of advice stated.

The most that Council can do … is to request that the relevant Councillors repay the relevant expenses. It will then be for those Councillors to decide whether they will,” Maddocks stated in its summary of advice.

Councillors, after initially resolving that Cr Celi should repay the overspend, voted on 23 May to reverse this decision, declaring that she had not overspent and further resolving that “Council cease any current or future recovery action” against Cr Celi.

The FOI request was lodged by the Mornington Peninsula Ratepayers’ and Residents’ Association Inc on Thursday 21 July, seeking “[A] full copy of the brief and any accompanying or further information the Shire sent to Maddocks Lawyers which resulted in the Advice provided by Maddocks … to the Shire dated 7 March 2016”.

MPRRA also sought all written material the shire received from “a Councillor”, which was then provided to Maddocks on which partly to base its legal opinion.The Maddocks opinion referred to “a Councillor” but did not name him or her.

One especially relevant (in Bandicoot’s view) item of information was apparently not provided to Maddocks. It is the management report included in each agenda via which councillors request a sum over $2000 from their allowance.

At the 23 May council meeting, executive governance manager Joe Spiteri said Maddocks had been given “all relevant information”. However when quizzed he finally said the management report material was not provided to Maddocks because the lawyers did not ask for it.

Councillors should be well aware of their expenditure limits as agenda items for meetings regularly include the statement: “Each councillor is allocated $4000 per annum for attendance at conferences and seminars, or the equivalent of $16,000 per Councillor term.”

Cr Celi received the additional allowance of $3500 allocated to her as mayor in 2014. Her total spend was $28,520, or 46.25% over her $19,500 cap.

When Cr Celi applied for $8400 in February 2013 to attend a Diploma of Local Government course, the officer’s report stated that “Cr Celi has [so far] expended $925.50 of the $16,000 allocation. Therefore, the estimated cost to attend this course is within the allocated budget amount.”

A search of council minutes has failed to find any further application by Cr Celi via a council meeting for funds from her allowance.

This apparently means nearly $20,000 was paid to Cr Celi under delegation from shire staff in amounts under the $2000 limit – or the $1500 limit that applied in 2013 – above which applications for payments must go to council.

This leaves the layperson confused about the Maddocks statement that “the relevant expenses have been lawfully approved by resolution of Council”, unless Maddocks uses the term “by resolution of Council” to mean both formal decisions by “councillors” at a council meeting and delegated decisions made by “council” staff beyond full council scrutiny.

Maddocks also uses the phrases “in reliance on valid Council resolutions” and “lawfully approved by resolution of Council” later in its advice, leaving open the question: does delegated staff approval of spending constitute a “resolution of Council”? Apparently it does, Bandicoot must conclude.

(The Oxford Dictionary defines “resolution” as “A formal expression of opinion or intention agreed on by a legislative body or other formal meeting, typically after taking a vote.”)

In a further move on councillor spending, the ratepayer group seeks from shire chief executive officer Carl Cowie confirmation that Cr Celi has conformed with the shire policy on child care expenses.

The policy states that: “Child care costs are not eligible for reimbursement if claimed for child caring by a person who is immediate family (eg. partner, mother/father, sister/brother, grandmother/grandfather or sister in law/brother in law) or normally or regularly lives with the Councillor.”