Blue Mountains Council public inquiry: legal fees not covered?

Legal fees to council could continue to rise because council’s insurance may not cover the legal bills of the mayor and the other 11 councillors at the coming public inquiry.

At last month’s council meeting, Liberal Ward 1 councillor Kevin Schreiber asked whether the legal bills of the mayor and the councillors will be covered by council insurance at the Ministerial public inquiry into council’s handling of asbestos and was “concerned” by the answer.

Neither the mayor, the general manager or council’s solicitor could answer the question and the matter was taken “under advisement”.

“That means there could be legal bills from 11 councillors, including the mayor,” Cr Schreiber said. “The mayor is not allowed to use council’s solicitor because (council solicitor) Trevor Cork represents the concerns of the council. These are questions that should be answered,” he added.

But Blue Mountains Mayor Mark Greenhill said: "It is not true that the question will be unanswered. We simply took it on notice in order to provide an accurate answer.”

"I think councillors need to work together and resist the temptation to play point scoring.” 

A council spokeswoman said Cr Schreiber’s message would be answered at the next council meeting on August 21 “as per the code of meeting practice staff endeavour to provide a brief answer in response to such questions in the next business paper”.

Cr Schreiber said he intends to use his own solicitor if he is called to the inquiry and that can cost “anything from a cup of coffee to $2,500” depending on the issue.

Greens Councillor Kerry Brown said if council’s insurance does not cover the councillors’ legal fees she would not support a move for council to pay for them.

“The Inquiry is not a criminal  court.  All of us can and should represent ourselves or otherwise spend our own money on lawyers."

Remediation, investigation and implementing stronger safety systems across the organisation will see council spend about $10 million before the end of this year, Cr Brown claimed.

NSW Local Government Minister Gabrielle Upton announced the public inquiry into council in June.

Council sought an injunction in the NSW Supreme Court to prevent the Local Government Minister going ahead with a suspension. Council later lost its appeal against a suspension but was not forced to pay the minister’s costs. 

The council spokeswoman said council had spent “just over $1m additional expenditure on legal fees during the 2017-2018 financial year (this includes recruitment investigation, PIO and injunction costs) ... budget for all legal fees (for 2019) is $695k.”

Cr Greenhill said: "Under my leadership, council will fully and openly cooperate with the public inquiry."