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GM cops serve from Ombudsman

Saturday, 19th December, 2020

James Roncon has been hired on a five-year performance based contract by Armidale Regional Council and will start in January. He declined an offer to renew his contract in Broken Hill, citing he preferred to move closer to his family. James Roncon has been hired on a five-year performance based contract by Armidale Regional Council and will start in January. He declined an offer to renew his contract in Broken Hill, citing he preferred to move closer to his family.

The NSW Ombudsman delivered a scathing review of decisions made by City Council and General Manager James Roncon in a report tabled in NSW parliament this week.

The report relates to the Ombudsman’s investigation into the opening of the Civic Centre to three events without proper occupancy certificates during its redevelopment in 2016 and 2017.

The Ombudsman said evidence established several serious breaches of the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act, laws that City Council is supposed to uphold.

“Council applying different rules to itself (as an occupant) to those it applies as a regulator undermines the integrity of the regulatory system and erodes trust,” the Ombudsman said.

“Council should hold itself to the same, if not higher, standards as those to which it holds the public it regulates.

“A high standard of integrity and honesty is critical to ensure public confidence in Council’s ability to carry out its functions properly.

“The General Manager has not recognised this, and has paid insufficient regard to the gravity of the EP&A Act breaches.”

The events included the Civic Ball and a conference of the National Party that included state and federal government leaders. 

The Ombudsman said it seemed the risk of embarrassment if the events were to be cancelled or relocated was given priority over and above the risk to the safety of the public and staff using the building.

“Although the General Manager stated publicly in Council’s media release of 13 June 2017 that he was comfortable with the risk of being held personally responsible for allowing the Centre to be used, he has not accepted responsibility for the breaches,” the Ombudsman said.

“The evidence shows that he has attempted to shift responsibility to other people and the advice he states they gave him.”

In his statements to the community, Mr Roncon had said, in effect, that the offences were justifiable and involved low risk to safety.

“This minimises the very real physical risks to which people, including Council staff on site, were exposed by attending the ball and the conference,” the Ombudsman said.

The unlawful and potentially unsafe use of the Broken Hill Civic Centre would likely not have come to light at all but for whistleblower reports.

The Broken Hill investigation sparked a wider examination by the Ombudsman into the “inherent conflict of interest” of councils acting as a developer and regulator, and that was the main thrust of the report tabled in parliament this week. The Ombudsman report into the specific case of Broken Hill formed part of this wider report, and its tabling in NSW parliament effectively made it public.

City Council could have made the Ombudsman’s Broken Hill report public in January this year, but chose not to do so. In a public statement posted on its website at the time, Council said it believed the report would compromise ongoing legal proceedings relating to the Civic Centre.

Council also said in the January statement that it wanted to dispel any perception that it was trivialising the Ombudsman’s investigation, and reiterated that the report was being “treated with utmost seriousness”.

Barrier Truth will publish excerpts from the report during the next few weeks.

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