Blue Mountains City Council has spent almost half a million dollars on legal fees associated with the public inquiry into problems surrounding asbestos management and other matters at the council. And those fees are expected to double.
The Inquiry was announced by the then Minister for Local Government Gabrielle Upton in June 2018, following a number of allegations over council's conduct, particularly in the area of asbestos management.
In a report to the council at the February 25 meeting, Ward 1 Greens Councillor Kerry Brown, who had called for the minister to have the inquiry, was told that $477,540.42 had been spent on legal services and more costs are coming when the inquiry starts this month.
"Significant costs, probably in the order of those already incurred, are expected in future, especially in relation to the pending hearings regarding asbestos management," the report said.
The report signals out Cr Brown, who asked for the costings on legal fees, adding that "to date the costs of responding to submissions made to the Inquiry by Cr Brown have been significantly greater than the costs of responding to the submissions made by Counsel Assisting [ the Commissioner of the Inquiry]".
It's a matter that's disputed by the embattled Greens councillor.
"I will be writing to the the general manager to seek clarification on her claim that responding to my two submissions has cost council more than responding to those of Counsel Assisting," she told the Gazette.
The final part of the public inquiry, which deals with the most serious allegations about asbestos management, starts on March 9 at Katoomba.
Cr Brown said it was "staggering that council has already spent nearly half a million dollars on legal fees alone which is expected to be at least double by the end of the inquiry".
"I have unsuccessfully moved that council not use a barrister to cross-examine witnesses. This is a civil inquiry, not an adversarial court case," she said.
"In my view, council should follow the norm and have one dedicated staff member providing documents to the Inquiry, not three full-time staffers for more than 18 months plus consultants; and one legal representative, not two including a barrister. In contrast, the Commissioner of the Inquiry has had Counsel Assisting and a solicitor who also does the administrative work."
Blue Mountains Council has provided more than 21,000 documents to the Inquiry. The council project team has also worked since mid 2018 on council's responses to the Environment Protection Authority and SafeWork NSW investigations. Council attained the services of an asbestos management consultant last year.
Last month council signed an Enforceable Undertaking (EU) with Safework in lieu of the regulatory body proceeding with eight prosecutions in relation to events at Lawson Hall car park and the Lawson depot in 2016 and 2017. The EU to improve worker, community and local government asbestos safety will cost council $287,680 to implement. Council has already spent more than $1.2m on addressing issues at Lawson. The full cost of councils asbestos clean up in 2017-18 is estimated at $11m.