State government moves to suspend Blue Mountains council

Blue Mountains City Council has been threatened with suspension in the wake of allegations about asbestos management.

The mayor, Mark Greenhill, told the Gazette the Minister for Local Government, Gabrielle Upton, has issued a notice of intention to suspend the council.

Cr Greenhill said it was a politically motivated act.

The minister issued a statement saying council had seven days to put forward “an alternative case” or face being suspended.

The mayor said the elected councillors should not be targeted.

“There is no excuse for this. There is no finding against the elected body,” he said. “Issues that have been troubling the council are operational issues, they are not to do with the functioning of the elected councillors.”

The mayor said he will meet with his fellow councillors tonight and he has also called an extraordinary council meeting for Friday night.

He will be seeking legal advice on council’s options, he said.

Cr Greenhill described the minister’s actions as “politically motivated” because of past clashes between the state government and council.

“It means the council that stood up to the state government is now in the process of being removed.

“That means no more resistance to Badgerys Creek Airport, no more resistance to the plans for overdevelopment and this means no holding the government to account for times of natural disaster when they let us down.

“This is politically motivated – end of story.”

Cr Greenhill recalled the devastating 2013 bushfires, which destroyed more than 200 homes in the Mountains, and what he said were failings of the state government at the time.

“The government made promises they didn’t deliver,” including promises to clear the burnt-out blocks.

“They also walked away from the recovery process after a few short months and we took it over,” the mayor said.

Cr Greenhill said he had no idea that the minister was planning to suspend council.

“It came as a shock to me this morning. I had no notice of this coming. I intend to call the councillors together tonight to discuss the issue with them informally.”

He will also advise them of any legal options open to them.

Ms Upton released a statement about the issue. The release in full is:

Local Government Minister Gabrielle Upton has issued Blue Mountains City Council a notice of intention to suspend it following serious allegations relating to its asbestos management practices.

The council now has seven days to respond to the notice and put forward an alternative case or face being suspended and an interim administrator appointed. Councillors will remain in place during the seven-day response period.

“I am concerned the council is not functioning effectively following the volume and scope of recent regulatory notices issued by SafeWork NSW and the Environment Protection Authority, including SafeWork’s decision to launch a full investigation into the council’s management of asbestos, the significance of the problem identified in these notices, and the level of community concern,” Ms Upton said.

Under the Local Government Act a council can be suspended for three months and an interim administrator appointed to restore its “proper or effective functioning”. The Act requires the Minister to give notice of intention providing the council with the opportunity to make any submissions on the intention to suspend.

The Mayor issued a full statement after midday perplexed by the timing of the decision.

“What is the point of announcing an investigation on Monday only to move to suspend us on Wednesday before the investigation has even begun?

“I am confident that there is nothing more that the council can do, over and above what it is already doing, to deal with the asbestos management issues.”

“We have responded to every requirement of the NSW government. We have followed every instruction of the NSW government and its agencies. We have taken every opportunity to improve the standard of our procedures and practices. We have made every commitment to fix problems and learn from our mistakes,” the mayor said.

“The council continues to engage with, and constructively respond to, the issues that have been raised by SafeWork NSW. It has maintained open communication with all relevant agencies on this matter and will continue to do so. We have participated openly and cooperatively in all investigations and are partnering with the NSW government to ensure we get the job done properly.”

The Mayor said he strongly believed there was “nothing to be gained, indeed there is much to be lost, by any change in the leadership of the council at this time” and he was in “shock” and saddened by the notice to suspend councillors of the council.

The United Services Union’s acting general secretary Steve Donley said he was also “shocked” by the decision.

Mr Donley said if the state government had made the decision a few months ago, when news of asbestos issues first broke, he would not have been surprised.

“But the acting general manager and the mayor have been getting on top of everything and doing a good job,” Mr Donley said. “Council was starting to get its act together.”

Mr Donley said he did not expect the actions of an administrator to affect their members. 

“Previously when an administrator has moved into council, generally it doesn’t have any effect on workers.”

“I just hope at the end of the day they are going to put safe work into their practices.”

- with B.C Lewis

Local Government Minister Gabrielle Upton.

Local Government Minister Gabrielle Upton.