Slings and Arrows: Gag motions, factions and financial timebombs

Factions, censorship and personal disputes are keeping the City of Adelaide’s council chamber in the headlines, but are there deeper problems lurking around the corner?

Adelaide. Designed for strife.

It’s now more than six months since the city council election, but for the woman now wearing the Lord Mayor’s robes, Sandy Verschoor, it looks set to be a challenging term ahead. Shouting, swearing and insults between councillors, now getting publicly ugly, are bad omens for any local government leader, especially so early in a term. There also have been unprecedented procedures imposed by a majority faction that gag councillor talks with the media about future motions. Lesson 101 for those that lead is to avoid taking sides, but to regular observers of the chamber’s fiery debates, the voting bloc commonly known as Team Adelaide appears to have the ear of the chair. Fair? The perception was not helped when Ms Verschoor confirmed to ABC radio in late May that she too was conceivably of that faction. Adelaide radio likes nothing more than a council stoush where the battlelines can be easily drawn. Moreover, the state government is always listening in, open to the idea of intervening in local government procedures to get its way. Especially if a new and controversial major city proposal were to bob up, tempting rebellion in the council’s volatile ranks, thus threatening to embarrass a relatively new state administration in its quest to ‘get things done’.

For the woman at the helm, it’s a far cry from her halcyon days as a state administrator and a council manager. In those days, complicated matters could be quietly resolved behind the scenes. Recently, two very senior directors quietly departed on only three weeks’ notice, taking with them years of organisational knowledge as well as high-level council skills not easily found locally. Unpredictability in the city’s top management ranks prompts lower-order staff to look elsewhere. An unstable workplace culture can easily give way to more trouble in the corridors.

Six months in

The resolution (or not) of major city council infrastructure funding and management problems looks set to define Verschoor’s term. None of the problems is a result of her initiative, although she was an area councillor in the previous term, which allowed her to develop a highly detailed, behind-the-scenes understanding of what was going on. She took that knowledge to the city election in November 2018, but the problems were not exposed. “Having invested my time, energy, passion and money into the city for over 30 years, I now hope to lead the City to greater prosperity through progressive, innovative and fiscally responsible actions of our Council,” she emailed voters as the polling day neared.

Her job is to address a challenge that arose out of council’s spending of vast amounts of ratepayers’ funds, sometimes over many years, trying to make facilities financially viable, but without success. Most of the determinations to spend were resolved in secret session, so the dollar amounts remain obscured. But they are in the many millions. Facilities include the North Adelaide Aquatic Centre and the North Adelaide Golf Course (both bleeding money for years). Council spent big on a golf course master plan in 2017 and threw more at it in 2018, but today the plan remains locked away, and the existing business model continues to bleed. The pattern is replicated at the Aquatic Centre, which underwent extensive, multi-million dollar upgrading in 2014. On 18 March 2019 fresh budget papers highlighted a need to throw upwards of another million dollars at additional works required. Previous Lord Mayors knew all about the Aquatic Centre and golf course problems.

That empty block

Then there’s the cost of buying the former Le Cornu site in O’Connell Street, North Adelaide, undeveloped for almost 30 years, despite five owners. A kneejerk December 2017 council decision under Lord Mayor Martin Haese led to the borrowing of more than the $24 million required to part pay the total required to acquire the land ($34 million). State taxpayers also have skin in the game, given the $10 million that state Labor threw in, months before the 2018 election. But, as secret talks continue into winter 2019, the asset now fails to deliver the $1.1 million annual rates income paid by the former owner, while not attracting other income. The big loan cost also continues to draw on council’s budget. Elected members had been quietly warned of extreme risks involved in buying the site for development. During 2018 it was implied to ratepayers that a range of concepts would be tabled for discussion once the expressions of interest (EOI) deadline passed. Lord Mayor Haese had insisted that the site’s future outcome should arise from a group effort, but be limited to eight storeys, a major contrast to the height and density of the previous owner’s colossal concept.

Letters in the box

This year, Ms Verschoor has letterboxed city householders several times, advising on the Le Cornu site development progress. On the last day of May she claimed that ‘Council’ had shortlisted developers for Stage 2. This implied that elected members were actively participating. But only a very small senior management group has assessed the EOIs to determine who would be invited to present “detailed proposals” to become the “development partner”. The Haese group-effort vision has been forgotten. The deadline for council “securing a developer” is now tagged for December 2019, but the letter reproduces those annoying little asterisks that lawyers like to add: * “Subject to agreed terms”. Worse, they attach to the other Verschoor pledge (“Possible construction commencement 2022”) the words * “Subject to approval process”. With so many caveats attached, the kick-off date remains vague.

Eight months ago, in October 2018, there were only two serious candidates for Lord Mayor, and the one who lost the race in November might now be thankful that he didn’t win, given the extent of the problems that wait to be resolved. That old saying applies. “Be careful what you wish for”.

*Ash Whitefly is Executive Director of the Adelaide Whitefly Institute of Diplomatic Studies.

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