Leaked letter casts light on town council pool fiasco

 

By ERWIN CHLANDA

The YMCA has asked the Town Council to pay it an additional amount of up to $45,000 a month “over and above the existing subsidy” for managing the town pool.
The request was made by Fiona Davies, president of YMCA Central Australia, in a letter in December last year which proposed “a new business model with a new business plan and budget for presentation to Council at its March 2012 meeting.”

The letter has been leaked to the Alice Springs News Online.

The council is dealing with the issues behind closed doors: in reply to enquiries yesterday the News was told by council CEO Rex Money that he is “constrained by confidentiality”. (see posting below).

We have now asked Mayor Damien Ryan whether the council has been and is paying the requested money to the YMCA; if so, for how long has this arrangement been in place and how long will it be; what the council has done to resolve the situation and why has the job not been re-tendered.
 We will publish Mr Ryan’s reply if and when it comes to hand.

Ms Davis says in her letter that the Alice Springs Aquatic and Leisure Centre “has dealt with a range of personnel issues, higher than expected energy costs and much higher staff ratios than was first expected, leading to substantial deficits over and above the subsidy provided by the Council.

“Since April 2011 until October 2011, YMCA Central Australia has funded this deficit to the extent of $280,000.”

Her letter says the appointment of an “excellent aquatic manager” had already made “a major difference” and it’s expected “these positive trends will continue”.
The News reported last month on defects at the pool, revealed in an earlier confidential report obtained by us as a “major problem”.

The council awarded the tender for the “management of the Alice Springs Aquatic & Leisure Centre” to the YMCA of Central Australia for $2,271,500 in 2009/10. (UPDATE.)

The agenda of this month’s meeting indicated there would be a report in confidential by the Director of Technical Services about the aquatic centre. Other confidential reports were to deal with the landfill compactor and the Todd Mall shade structure, destined to be removed as part of the CBD revitalisation project. The director of finance was to report on budget amendments. The News has asked Mr Ryan to comment on these matters as well.

 

 

Yesterday’s posting (March 17)

 

COMMENT by ERWIN CHLANDA

 

OK, guys, why can’t we get a straight answer on this one?

The Alice Springs News Online had a phone call yesterday from someone requesting anonymity. What that person told me prompted me to send the following email to Mayor Damien Ryan and Town Council CEO Rex Mooney.

“I understand the YMCA has under-tendered for its management of the pool. Takings from attendance, and as a result, earnings, are well below expectations. The council is paying them half a million dollars more [in excess of the contract] during the life of the agreement (1 or 2 years?). This bail-out has not been made public. The proper course of action should have been to re-tender the contract. Could you please comment on this?”

Mr Mooney responded yesterday: “Erwin,  thank you for your email. My comment is: I am constrained by confidentiality to comment on the assumptions conveyed in your email.”

Mr Ryan (pictured) replied today: “Erwin … any questions on operational issues need to be directed to the CEO.”

We sought comment yesterday from the YMCA by requesting pool manager Ian Jones to pass a message to Helen Sargent who is apparently the YMCA person in charge of the contract. I made the same request today to a lady who answers the phone at the Y. She told me no comment would be made before “Tuesday when the acting CEO will be at work”.

I left a message on the mobile of the Y’s CEO, Ray Smith. No reply from anyone. (I have since been told he has left.)

Whose attention has it escaped that a week from today will be arguably the most crucial council election in the history of this town?

Have some people not cottoned on yet that transparency and leadership – which includes the judicious spending of public money – are among the key issues?

If this rumor is not true then, Mr Mayor, say so. If it is then let’s have the facts, all the facts, and let’s have them now, not after the voters have been sent to the ballot box in ignorance.

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13 Comments (starting with the most recent)

NB: If you want to reply to a previous comment, start your comment with this notation: @n where n is the number of the comment you want to reply to.
  1. Alderman John Rawnsley
    Posted March 20, 2012 at 12:08 pm

    Harold,
    I was referring to confidentiality generally (I’m not able to provide comment about this specific issue). This is why I started following my opening comments by saying “referring to confidential information generally”. My comment is my personal opinion about the general subject matter and not of Council. John.

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  2. Russell Guy
    Posted March 20, 2012 at 10:23 am

    In his attempts to “gather the general gist,” Harold Albatross declares his penchant for grandstanding, yet again.
    His disingenuous reply to my Advocate letter (6/3/12 on 9/3/12) regarding proposals for a take-away alcohol sales free regime, stated “I think we can infer that he supports an alcohol-free day.”
    Apart from his supercilious attitude towards the importance of such a measure and its benefits to the community, he implied that I advocated prohibition, which I do not, describing what I had to say about the moral bankruptcy of free-market legislation in this case as “jibberish” (sic).
    He concluded by saying that “we do have something in common,” but if he cares to read my comment “The Devil’s Big Day Out,” he may find that he’s out on a limb on that one too.
    Now he comes out saying that he “didn’t read all of Rawnsley’s response,” but he still has an opinion which he believes is informed.
    As I’ve said previously, we need more like you, John. Your explanations regarding good governance are informed by considered experience and are much appreciated. Please continue to give us the benefit of it.

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  3. Anonymous
    Posted March 20, 2012 at 9:21 am

    Is there really a viable alternative to the YMCA? I’d imagine that the YMCA is the only obvious entity with the resources (staff, skill and logistically) to operate a modern aquatic centre 1500km from the nearest capital city. You pay peanuts, you get monkeys (look at what happened with the landfill debacle).
    How many visitors using the pool pay full fees? People don’t want to pay the fees and expect the Territory and Federal Governments to fund their lifestyles it’s been happening forever. Does the town really appreciate how lucky we are to have such a facility for an urban population of (27,000 depending on the day of the week)? Please, Alice Springs, support our pool!

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  4. Hal Duell
    Posted March 20, 2012 at 5:57 am

    @John
    I appreciate your concern about a matter being moved from Confidential into Open by stealth. To clarify my position on this, and hopefully to alleviate your concerns, what follows is a rough draft of a petition I plan to present to the next Town Council.
    I have included my reasons at the end.
    In every public meeting, and immediately prior to Council adjourning from Open to Confidential, the public in the gallery would be asked if they wished to challenge the placement of any matter listed on the meeting’s agenda for discussion in Confidential.
    In the event of a challenge, the Council officer(s) who placed that matter in Confidential would be asked to explain why they did so.
    The Councillors would then vote to move the matter into Open, or to keep it in Confidential. The details of the matter being challenged would not be debated until it was determined where that debate was to take place. If the determination was to move it into Open, the debate would then proceed. If the determination was to keep it in Confidential, the meeting would adjourn into Confidential and the public and press would leave the chamber.
    I appreciate that this could add to the time needed for an already long meeting.
    To make this change easier to support, may I suggest that:
    1) The right to challenge would not be used often or lightly.
    2 Any change to Council’s fixed agenda that increases the public’s confidence that all business conducted by Council is transparent and accountable is a change for the better.
    3 Any change to Council’s fixed agenda that allows for greater public participation in Council’s public meetings is a change for the better.

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  5. Harold Albatross
    Posted March 19, 2012 at 10:18 pm

    Didn’t read all of Rawnsley’s response but thought I had managed to gather the general gist.
    This is not about confidentiality. It is about a public tender that was legitimately won by the YMCA. It is about the winning tenderer not being able to supply the service promised under that tender. It is about the council being open and honest and advising ratepayers of the issue. It is about this being swept under the carpet while an election is imminent.
    There is no “commercial in confidence” about this. YMCA have failed. Council need to re-tender the contract. Imagine having missed out on this contract because you tendered $20k too much and then finding out that the successful tenderer ends up costing over $100k more.
    Council is not necessarily at fault in the awarding of the tender, but covering up the failure of the successful tenderer is unacceptable.
    Hard to have confidence in current council and executive management team.

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  6. Alderman John Rawnsley
    Posted March 19, 2012 at 5:18 pm

    One of my great disappointments in my time on Council is the fact that confidential information is leaked so often. It is confidential under the Act, but the regularity of the leaking undermines the purpose of those parts of the Local Government Act and, apart from this, the very definition of “confidentiality” itself. It also undermines the ability of elected members to be frank and fearless in their questioning and scrutiny of the papers.
    Referring to confidential information generally, Alderman Liz Martin is correct in asserting that in many cases only a small percentage of the subject matter requires confidentiality (so this means the whole matter must remain confidential). From a governance perspective, there are very good reasons why this is so. Some may seem mundane, such as the slandering of someone in public (or even inferring a fact) without providing that person a right of reply, but they are very important.
    Often, only parts of it are leaked, or parts that are not subject to verbal updates (where these updates are confidential but essential to the topic). The leaker in most cases has their own agenda and is often selective. The way the story is projected often gives hints as to the angle which is being played. Media often play into this story because this encourages their source to keep on leaking to them and for them to be in a position to continue to do stories based on leaked information. There is no space for objectivity because elected members and Council are bound by confidentiality and the LG Act not to speak about them.
    In any debate, an elected member can have their own individual and personal political imperatives at heart, and, at times, this can conflict with the town’s interest. I’ve seen this time and time again. When matters are discussed behind closed doors I see and hear the opinions of certain individuals change. Their voices are suited to the audience (and in a confidential room the audience are other elected members and select staff, as opposed to the media).
    Some individuals play on the confidentiality issue at length, and for personal political reasons, because they know the public don’t know what’s discussed in confidential and they know, as such, that it’s easy to create the notion of secrecy or a conspiracy. One concerning aspect of modern democracy is that the level of trust in government (and this applies to all governments across the world) has been steadily reducing. Such politics plays into this mistrust. It is irresponsible politics because it is saying to that portion of electors who are anti-government generally that their stance is supported and is valued (when, on an objective level, it should not).
    I understand Hal’s proposal, but, have to disagree because some elected members will be influenced more by their own political interests than the valid reasons why an item ought to remain in confidential. I could support a proposal where a member of the public can ask for a category of reasons why a matter should be kept in confidential, but once it’s then opened to elected members and / or debate it is treading on dangerous Territory.
    Unfortunately, I was not there on the night that this particular subject matter was debated but I can say with absolute certainty and conviction that the clear majority of elected members have the town’s interest at heart whether they discuss matters in open or in confidence. This includes whether a matter should be brought from confidential to the open section.

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  7. Hal Duell
    Posted March 19, 2012 at 2:16 pm

    Thank you Steve and Liz for your in principle support.
    I am drafting a petition to allow this question that I plan to present to the first meeting of the 12th Alice Springs Town Council.
    That will be on the 16th of April, and I hope to see you both there.
    And a suggestion, Liz, if I may. Don’t ask if such an innovation is allowed under the Local Government Act. Ask if it’s not allowed. No one willingly gives up power, or likes to see it challenged.

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  8. Kylie
    Posted March 19, 2012 at 12:29 pm

    How disgusting. Mayor Ryan must come clean on this. Are our funds being misused? How dare he allow this to hidden from the public.

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  9. Steve Brown
    Posted March 19, 2012 at 9:15 am

    I am with you Hal, if I make it to Council I will put forward a motion along these lines at the earliest opportunity.

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  10. Posted March 18, 2012 at 11:22 pm

    I like your idea Hal, although its the first I’ve heard of it. I don’t know if it is allowable under the NT’s Local Government Act to which council is bound but I’m happy to check this out for future reference.
    One of the things I have found frustrating is that while 90% of a matter could be public the 10% that requires confidentiality (under the Act) prevents the rest coming out. In my time on Council there has always been a valid reason for keeping an item in confidential. I have sometimes sought advice on this from our learned CEO or drawn on my own experience as a successful business woman.

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  11. Hal Duell
    Posted March 18, 2012 at 2:22 pm

    Since I first started attending Council meetings eight years ago, one of my perennial requests has been for the public to have the right to challenge confidential.
    At public meetings of the Byron Bay Shire Council, just before the meetings adjourn into Confidential the public in the Gallery is asked if anyone wants to challenge whether or not a matter on the agenda could be discussed in Open.
    On the day I was there, a matter was challenged. The Council officers argued to keep it in, but the Councillors voted to take it out. The matter was then debated in Open.
    Every time I have raised this idea, there has been a mildly hysterical response assuming that I am asking that the public be given the right to determine whether or not a matter is for Open or Confidential.
    Not true. At all times the Councillors would be the ones making any determination, but the public would have the right to challenge.
    Perhaps if the Alice Springs Town Council adopted this practice, more oversight would be shown by the public resulting in a greater degree of transparency and, hopefully, fewer kerfuffles such as the current one regarding the YMCA and the pool.
    The agendas for both Open and Confidential are posted on Council’s website by the close of business on the Friday before all Council’s Monday meetings. So it’s not hard to stay informed.

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  12. Norm Biggs
    Posted March 18, 2012 at 11:22 am

    Mayor Ryan was on CAAMA talking about how the pool is his greatest achievement!
    For once I agree with Mr Brown. If this is true and the council is using our rate money, we deserve to know. Will watch with interest, perhaps I made up my mind too soon. Just shows all pollies hide things, no matter what level.

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  13. Steve Brown
    Posted March 18, 2012 at 7:06 am

    Here we go again, if there is any truth to this story there is not a single “legal” reason that this information should not be in the public space. Given that the Mayor has openly campaigned on the success of this swimming complex as being one of his crowning achievements this is not a “confidential matter”! This is a bare faced “cover up”! It is a misrepresentation of the facts to the public! If there is any truth to this story I demand as a Mayoral Candidate an immediate special meeting of Council be convened with the purpose of having confidentiality lifted! The public has an absolute “Right” to have these facts before them when making a decision based on the past and possible future performance of Candidates.
    In fact as a lead into any election the entire budgetary position should be released to the owners of this business “The Public” so that they are in full possession of all the facts when casting their votes! Are there any other budgetary blow-outs sitting in “Confidential” that the public should know about I wonder? Let’s have a statement from the Mayor.

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