April 23, 2017
A COUNCILLOR’S relentless campaign for “transparency” hit the wall at Wednesday night’s council meeting when his eight fellow councillors told him “Enough!”
Cr Les Larke raised three notices of motion. The first motion called for the CEO to explain "in plain English" the council’s financial position, but the motions themselves ran to many hundreds of words, few of them in plain English. They are impossible to paraphrase so they are reproduced in full on the right.
The first motion lapsed because Cr Larke couldn’t find a seconder; the second and third were seconded but defeated eight to one.
Cr Stephen Fullarton seconded the second motion then conceded “I don’t understand every word of my colleague’s motion” and voted against it.
Like most people, I haven’t got a clue what Cr Larke is on about in his motions but, as a member of a trade that values clear writing, I suspect he is subjecting councillors, ratepayers and residents to a torrent of gobbledygook designed to numb the brain into acquiescence.
Most of Cr Larke's fellow councillors initially supported him, passing several such motions in previous meetings. But they are increasingly sceptical about his claims that the council is in a perilous financial situation and frustrated by the time taken to deal with his concerns when there are other more important matters to attend to.
Last month he stormed out of a private council meeting after his fellow councillors declined to support a measure he was advocating. He later indicated his intention to resign from several council committees but did not proceed with the threat.
As Cr Larke frequently points out, he is a certified practising accountant of CPA Australia, and the lone one on the council. Arguing with him on accrual accounting and adjusted underlying results is like trying to argue with a used car salesman about gear ratios and differentials. You can’t win.
But if he is right about the council’s underlying position, then every other council and every auditor general in Australia is wrong.
In response to his concerns, the council recently invited the Victorian Auditor General to send a representative to meet with council. The VGO rep advised that the council accounts had received an unqualified sign-off. The council's independent audit committee has also approved the accounts.
One of the big differences between accounting of private and public organisations is the way income and expenditure are spread over the year. As Cr Geoff Ellis put it, “You can interpret the figures to say that we make a big profit around September/October then slowly go broke over the rest of the year."
The other difference is that private companies hate to spend money on non-income-producing assets while councils spend our money to build public infrastructure that is valued by the community.
On Wednesday night, Cr Bruce Kent said he objected to the wording of the Cr Larke’s motions, which begin “In the interests of transparency …”. “The community will look at this and if we vote no, they will say we are voting no to transparency,” said Cr Kent.
Cr Michael Whelan said the motions were worded to wedge councillors. “As soon as one thing is addressed, Cr Larke slightly changes tack. I will oppose any more of these motions that come up on an ad hoc basis unless we can see an overall plan.”
He said Cr Larke had a history of harassing financial staff to such an extent that it was difficult for them to do their job. “Governance isn’t about nit-picking the fine detail of a professional officer’s work. It’s about setting the policy direction, ensuring that our confidence and trust are well placed and giving them room to do their work.”
Cr Larke responded that his notices of motion implied no criticism of financial staff. “They are very professional people.”
Asked by the Post if he felt his colleagues had lost confidence in him, Cr Larke responded: “These were minor setbacks in my best endeavours to have a high level of governance, performance and accountability including financial transparency …
Undaunted by these "minor setbacks", he said he planned to propose another financial measure at next Wednesday’s special meeting, “to further reform Council's Strategic Resource Plan, Budget and financial sustainability”. He expected it would also be defeated. “However, I will continue my quest for reform of council's finances in my capacity as the only professional member (within council) of a peak Australian accounting body and commitment to our community.”
Cr Larke was the Bass Coast Ratepayers and Residents Association’s (BCRRA) number one pick for the Bunurong Ward in the 2016 council election. Members of the association, including its president, Kevin Griffin, lobbied councillors to support the notices of motion and were present for Wednesday night’s meeting.
Mr Griffin has been labelled “the tenth councillor” for the prominent role he assumes at council meetings. Having achieved the council he wanted, however, he is finding some of the councillors the BCRRA backed in the election less malleable than he might have hoped.
Earlier, during public question time, Mr Griffin asked the council CEO, Paul Buckley, whether he would “advise the community as to whether or not he has expressed any interest in, or made any application toward being considered for any position within the Latrobe Valley Authority”.
A clearly annoyed Mr Buckley responded with a blunt and ambiguous “No”. When Mr Griffin attempted to question him further, Cr Bruce Kent rebuked him for the rudeness of his question and called for an end to hostilities.
The Post sought to speak with Mr Griffin but he did not respond.