Shire told to make councillor repay costs

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Antonella CELI

Antonella CELI

Mornington Peninsula Shire officers have been instructed to seek repayment of thousands of dollars alleged to have been overspent by Cr Antonella Celi.

In an at times fiery debate, councillors last week agreed that Cr Celi should repay the money allocated to her under her entitlements for conferences and seminars.

The motion to pursue Cr Celi for the money was carried on the casting vote of the mayor Cr Graham Pittock after councillors were deadlocked five-five.

Cr Celi left the chamber during the debate and vote.

Although the original motion put Cr Celi’s overspending at $12,520 the final wording called on her to repay “any sum in excess of the sum of $19,500” on her conferences and seminars account. The latest figures given to council puts Cr Celi’s spending at $28,520.

Councillors are generally allowed up to $4000 a year during their four-year term, although some extra money is allowed for the mayor. Cr Celi was mayor in 2013-2014.

Two days after the vote, Cr Celi told The News that although the motion seeking repayment had been passed, “I do not know the next step. The CEO [Carl Cowie] and [shire] officers will need to check its legal validity”.

“I didn’t receive any of that money in my account. It was all paid through officer’s delegation or with council approval and resolution”.

The original notice of motion put by Cr Hugh Fraser to council’s Tuesday 26 April meeting also included a call for Cr Celi to repay costs of legal advice from Maddocks, Lawyers sought by council at her request in March.

Although not released publicly, it is understood the advice from Maddocks cast doubts on the shire’s ability to reclaim money from councillors.

However, this demand for payment of Maddocks’ fees was dropped, as was an earlier notice of motion from Cr Fraser for council to meet the legal costs surrounding conflict-of-interest action in 2012 by the Local Government Investigation and Compliance Inspectorate against Cr Pittock.

Cr Fraser would not tell The News why he withdrew the move for the shire to pay Cr Pittock’s legal bills.

Cr Pittock, now mayor, told The News the motion was withdrawn because he had not yet added up all the bills, which he estimated at $50,000 to $60,000, “but I don’t know if the shire would pay”.

Cr Pittock, who was found guilty and fined $4000, said a precedent had been set by another municipality which covered the legal costs of a councillor involved “in the same sort of case as mine”.

“But it [the move to seek payment] won’t go back on the agenda; it won’t be going back to council,” Cr Pittock said.

Cr Celi said she had since “flagged” Mr Cowie to inform councillors if “any other approaches or conversations are made” regarding the shire being paying Cr Pittock’s legal bills.

Ian Lyons, a former mayor of Mordialloc and now a peninsula resident who was at the council meeting, said he felt it was inappropriate for Cr Pittock to have used his casting vote to pass the motion.

“The mayor’s second vote should be used to maintain the status quo, and that would have meant not requiring Cr Celi to repay the money,” Mr Lyons said.

“She is good value [as a councillor] and I see this as a pretty dirty bit of politics.”

Mr Lyons said some of Cr Celi’s costs had gone towards her studies for a Diploma in Local Government “which councillors were being urged to do by the premier, at the time” as well as attending functions or meetings on behalf of other councillors.

Cr Fraser, who moved the notice of motion, told The News he expected Cr Celi to repay the money in much the same way that state and federal MPs did if they went beyond their allowances.

He said councillors had been given the opportunity for a one-on-one with shire officers to correct any anomalies in their expenses, which were first revealed in January.

The latest figures given to councillors show Cr Celi spent $28,520 on conferences and seminars. Cr David Gibb ($15,862) and Cr Fraser ($15,420) come second and third respectively.

The next highest is Cr Bev Colomb (still identified on the council document as being the mayor) with $12,487, followed by Cr Tim Rodgers ($11,832), Cr Pittock ($10,091), Cr Lyn Bowden ($7487), Cr David Garnock ($4009), Cr Andrew Dixon ($3396) and Cr Tim Wood ($376). Former councillor Frank Martin, who was replaced by Wood in August 2015, spent $7806.

Cr Celi said she was always careful to “do the right thing”. “Nothing ever came back [from council officers] saying no, so I always assumed due diligence was being done”.

“As far as I know all those authorisations were signed off in accordance with shire policy.”

Cr Celi said the shire’s policy on councillor spending limits was “ambiguous and needs to be clearer”.

“There’s nothing there to indicate retrospective payments. The officers would have [only] authorised [payments] within the policy.”

Cr Celi said the situation had been different when Cr Pittock and Cr Fraser had gone to international climate change talks in Paris late last year “because the $16,000 spending limit was made clear to them”.

“They knew up front they would have to pay if they exceeded the limit.”

Cr Celi said there had never been mention of retrospectivity made to her and being asked to repay the money “has come out of the blue”.

“I’m being asked to repay money that was not even put in my account,” she said.

“We’ll see what happens, it’s a very questionable resolution. I’ve done nothing untoward, everything was authorised.”

First published in the Southern Peninsula News – 3 May 2016

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