Willow Court assessment process questioned

Acting general manager Daniel Smee, left, and mayor Ben
Shaw during last night’s council meeting.

NEGOTIATIONS for the use of buildings at Willow Court will continue despite concerns over the Derwent Valley Council’s handling of the process.

Last night’s council meeting faced a second round of public questions about the way it conducted an expression of interest process in the use of buildings it owns on the former convict hospital site in central New Norfolk.

After receiving advice that a probity inquiry had been launched into the EOI process, last month’s council meeting decided to lease three buildings to the New Norfolk Distillery and to start discussions with the Salamanca Arts Centre about two others for a community arts hub.

Responding to public questions last night, acting general manager Daniel Smee said there was no reason why those negotiations should not proceed at the same time as a probity audit. “The process of a probity review does not preclude the ongoing assessment and negotiations that are under way,” Mr Smee said. “The process of review is looking at what’s occurred in the past and there’s been no decision of council to cease the ongoing negotiations.

Questioners included former councillor and Friends of Willow Court secretary Anne Salt, who resigned her seat on council the morning after last month’s council meeting. That meeting saw the council decide not to proceed with the Friends of Willow Court’s EOI for the site, while opting to progress other proposals received after the closing date.

In response to public questions at that meeting, general manager Greg Winton, now on leave, said all four EOIs had been assessed on their merits but he was aware of speculation that one had received preferential treatment. “I am commissioning a probity report to respond to those assertions,” Mr Winton said.

Last night’s meeting also heard about advice that a decision to have councillors involved in the discussions for the leasing of council-owned sections of Willow Court could comprise the final decision-making process and expose the council to risk. “The mayor has advised he will speak with other elected members regarding this and council officers will continue discussions with proponents,” Mr Smee said in a report.

Tony Nicholson asking a question about
Willow Court at last month’s meeting.

Former mayor Tony Nicholson took up this issue during question time last night, asking why the council had gone ahead with its decision last month when the Local Government Act had clear guidelines on the conduct of councillors and their decision-making role.

“Why did the mayor have to receive advice that such a decision may compromise the decision-making process and expose the council to risk?” asked Mr Nicholson, who is deputy chairman of the Friends of Willow Court.

Mr Smee said it was not unusual for councils to appoint elected members to subcommittees or panels in relation to a matter that’s before council.

“So what has occurred is certainly not something that is out of the ordinary, but in terms of best practice the advice that has been received is that because of the fact that council is to make a final decision on this, having elected members involved is not best practice in terms of good governance,” Mr Smee said.

Mr Smee said he could understand why it had been decided to include councillors in the lease negotiations for the buildings at Willow Court. “Subsequently the advice has been received and those councillors have withdrawn from the process. What occurred is certainly not something that should have been known to councillors that this is something that is an absolute ‘no-no’. I can understand why that decision was made, similarly I can understand why the advice has been provided.”

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