AUDIO – Cr Gibb then Cr Dixon. Cr Dixon spoke at the meeting before Cr Gibb proposed his amendment.
The much-anticipated revision of the Councillor Expenditure Policy was put forward, and – to the shock of many – knocked back after considerable debate at the council meeting last Monday (22 August), when a councillor who most assumed was certain to support it changed sides.
For Cr Andrew “Billy” Dixon, the revised allowable vehicle expenses fell short of his need for a heftier fuel reimbursement allowance, which shire governance had cut to reflect the Australian Tax Office sum, now 66 cents per kilometre, down from 77cpk, since 1 July last year.
Cr Dixon told the chamber that in 2014-15, reimbursement “for larger vehicles” was 77cpk. (The ATO has since set the rate at 66cpk, or 14.3% less, a rate now widely used including by local government. Separate reimbursement rates based on engine size ended on 1 July last year.)
“To reduce reimbursements to councillors by 37% directly reduces the incentive councillors have to attend meetings with the community, a primary role of elected members,” Cr Dixon said.
“The reality is I don’t have a career’s worth of superannuation and salaries and land holdings backing me up.”
Having the monthly shire reimbursement cheque drop from $500 to $300 “means a councillor in my position will need to make up that (amount) through casual work, inevitably at the expense of the community … You shouldn’t have to be wealthy to be a councillor.”
Bandicoot was unable to calculate how an 11-cent drop in the fuel reimbursement rate resulted in a 37% drop rather than the actual 14.3% drop. He assumes that a reimbursement fall from $500 to $300 (a drop of 40%) must include major items in other expenditure areas.)
The expenditure policy was supported by councillors Anne Shaw, Bev Colomb, David Garnock, David Gibb and Antonella Celi. Against were councillors Dixon, Tim Wood, Tim Rodgers, Hugh Fraser and mayor Graham Pittock, who used his casting vote to defeat the proposal.
Cr Gibb then moved adoption of the expenditure policy with an amendment that would have lifted the fuel reimbursement to 76 cents per kilometre.
“Is that acceptable, Cr Dixon?” he asked across the chamber.
It was promptly pointed out by Cr Fraser that the agenda item had been voted on and was thus concluded. “It’s not possible now to entertain a further motion on a matter that’s completed and finished with, and [Cr Gibb’s bid to revive the expenditure item] should be ruled completely out of order,” Cr Fraser said.
This sudden drama was not yet quite over, however, with the next contribution coming from governance manager Joe Spiteri.
“We have discussed the concept of a supplementary motion; in fact we’ve entered into that situation on a number of occasions previously,” he said. “It is really up to the councillor group whether you wish to entertain a supplementary motion.”
Cr Fraser again emphasised that “the matter is concluded by a vote” – this phrase spoken slowly and with emphasis.
Cr Dixon then spoke. “For what it’s worth I would be happy to second the motion put forward by Cr Gibb,” he said.
Instead, Cr Pittock adjourned the meeting briefly. Councillors and the gallery mingled and spoke in serious and, in some cases, shocked tones about what they had just witnessed.
It is now unclear how the expenditure policy can be brought up again before the 22 October council election. A Special Council Meeting is scheduled for next Monday, 29 August; after that come Ordinary Council Meetings on 12 September and 10 October.
Council enters the caretaker period on 21 September. Inappropriate decisions should not be made after this date, which will inhibit matters that can be brought to council. These are matters that would affect voting at an election or decisions that may unreasonably bind an incoming council and could reasonably be deferred until after the election.
No mention is made of the defeated expenses policy in the agenda for the 29 August meeting.
The councillor expenses policy was revised to try to draw a line under the contentious Celi overspend matter. But, while temporarily overshadowing it, it will not kill it off, as perhaps the initiators of the revision hoped.
Apparently as a way of “sanitising” the $28,500 Cr Celi has spent – $9020 over her allowance – the revised policy includes a new councillor spend of $10,000 apiece for education and training.
This unbudgeted sum, a total of $110,000 (11 councillors times $10,000), represents a 62.5% lift in the councillor allowances for conferences, seminars and training, which will no doubt crease the brow of CEO Carl Cowie, who has just steered a tight budget through to completion and was possibly entitled to think the process was done and dusted.
Of course, councillors don’t have to spend all their allowances, but the community might take amiss their generosity to themselves, considering it seems as though the Gibb-Shaw faction primarily saw the $10,000 as a way of trying to moderate the effect of the Celi matter.
Those who voted for it can now start rehearsing their responses to ratepayers in the 60-odd days leading to the council elections.
Lifting councillors’ total entitlement on seminars, conferences and now training to $26,000 ($29,500 in a mayoral year) makes the Celi spend of $28,500 look pretty stock-standard.
What a shame Cr Dixon can’t use part of the allowance for petrol!