LAST November, Les Larke was elected to Bass Coast Shire Council on a platform of fixing council finances by cutting waste.
His latest of several cost-cutting proposals is for the council to lay off 46 staff – 15 per cent of the total workforce – over the next three years. Those in the gun are “managers, co-ordinators, supervisors and team leaders” – pretty much anyone in charge of anyone else, whom Cr Larke clearly regards as providing little value for money to the community.
He estimates this would save Bass Coast ratepayers $14 million by 2021, although he makes no allowance for paying redundancies or finding someone else to do the work, or the social dislocation the job cuts would cause in the shire.
If Cr Les Larke really wants to cut waste and improve council efficiency, perhaps he should look at his own position first.
Cr Larke is paid an allowance of $24,127 a year – $463 a week – plus super to fulfil his duties as a councillor. Not a fortune for the average councillor who puts in 20-plus hours a week on council business but a nice little stipend for anyone who coasts.
In the five months to March 31, the latest date for which figures are available, Cr Larke also received mileage, phone/internet and travel expenses totalling $5400. His mileage claim was $1824, by far the highest of any councillor. By the same date, he had racked up $1860 in conference and training expenses, almost as much as the other eight councillors combined.
While he is apparently keen on attending conferences, he seems less enthusiastic about councillor briefings and policy workshops, with council records showing he attended just three of the eight held between April 12 and May 24.
While these meetings are not compulsory, his eight fellow councillors, even those with full-time jobs or other responsibilities, rarely miss them since they are essential backgrounders for the often complex decisions they must make.
At the monthly public meetings, councillors provide a brief report on their activities over the preceding month. At last Wednesday’s council meeting, while his fellow councillors spoke animatedly of the events they had attended, Cr Larke’s response was: “Nothing of substance to report.”
Not surprising since he is rarely seen at public events where he might meet his constituents.
His councillor profile on the council website lists his membership of four committees and organisations but in fact he has resigned from two of them. He stepped down as the councillor representative on the audit committee last month – a surprise given his frequent boast that he is the only one of the councillors to understand accounting and auditing. This month he resigned from the access and inclusion committee.
While his fellow councillors all serve on four, five, six or more committees, he now serves on just two external committees – the Municipal Association of Victoria and the Victorian Local Governance Association – but has not attended a meeting of either since April.
Cr Larke first proposed the staff cuts in preliminary discussion on the budget. Finding little enthusiasm from his fellow councillors, he then made a submission on the draft budget as a ratepayer rather than a councillor. At Wednesday’s council meeting he attempted a last-minute amendment of the strategic plan to include the staff cuts and a reduction in the council’s long service leave reserve.
Mayor Pamela Rothfield declined to accept either amendment since both involved such substantial change to the budget that it would have had to be readvertised.
A third amendment proposing that the council dump plans to lease part of the Cowes cultural centre to Phillip Island Nature Parks was defeated seven to two, after a sharp rebuke of Cr Larke by his fellow councillor Michael Whelan.
Cr Whelan said he had prepared for the meeting by ensuring he was familiar with the agenda, reading the background reports on each issue and attending council briefings.
“I’m not complaining. That’s my job. And then at 3pm today, before the meeting, Cr Larke, who hasn’t attended any of the briefings, appears with half a dozen motions and amendments. There’s no I in team, Cr Larke. The problem is there’s no you in it either.”
The Post asked Cr Larke if he felt he was fulfilling his obligations as a councillor and providing value to the people he represented. He responded as follows:
“The amendment quoted by Mr Whelan Wednesday evening has been known by Cr Whelan for several months, and in fact Mr Whelan signed it off with his personal signature though later withdrew his signature and support.
“Family circumstances including a recent close bereavement have impacted [on his attendance at meetings], however when the time is right, I will reconsider.
“I have not shared this with Cr Whelan given his overt and personal animosity as demonstrated last Wednesday evening. I have since received feedback and support from the gallery and members of the press who were appalled by such behaviour.
“I have no doubt that the governance, key performance indicators and financial standing of Council is significantly enhanced principally because of my advocacy, experience and expertise. Whilst not optimal, four years of projected underlying operating surpluses 2018-21 compared with the previous five consecutive years of substantial underlying operating deficits is an important turnaround.”