The new NSW Local Government Minister Barbara Perry, MP for Auburn in western Sydney, might consider starting her portfolio responsibilities by cleaning up the mess in her own backyard on Auburn Council.

An official investigation conducted under Section 430 of the Local Government Act was published last month exposing extraordinary financial, planning and management issues at the heart of the council’s culture.

At the centre of the inquiry was the architectural monstrosity known locally as Auburn Central which has been plonked in Perry’s backyard.

The sprawling $90 million project, completed in April 2005, comprises two basement car parks, two commercial levels, residential towers with 400 apartments, plus a free-standing four-storey commercial building.

The council sold part of Queen Street to the developers, Holdmark Developers Pty Ltd, for $1.81 million which was considerably lower than the council’s own valuation of between $7 million and $9 million.

“No explanation for the sale of the property for the lower amount could be provided,” said the report.

“Council’s failure to realize the true value of the asset resulted in a potential loss of $5.19 million in public funds.”

The council also lost out financially by not collecting other Section 94 contribution from the developer amounting to $311,146.

The department’s senior investigations officer Paul Terrett found the completed building had fire safety hazards, suffered ongoing vandalism issues, overcrowding and “illegal construction done post occupancy”. He concluded:

The evidence indicates that the council did not have the capability to manage the project and it was evident that staff did not have the necessary skill, experience and training to certify a large residential development.

Terrett also remarked:

It should be noted that the investigation revealed that certain council (and other) records relating to the development were missing from files. This hindered the investigation and these files are still missing.

The investigation made no adverse findings against any individual but it uncovered “a dysfunctional organization culture” which led to the “project’s failings”.

It specifically cleared the developer Mr Sarkis Nassif and his companies, including Hallmark, of any wrong-doing and placed the blame for the debacle on council officers, not councillors.

Terrett’s final recommendation stated: “That this report be referred to the Independent Commission Against Corruption for information and any action considered necessary.”

That is the equivalent of putting it into a filing cabinet and locking the door.

If Auburn had been a Liberal or National-dominated council, it would have been sacked and the government-appointed administrators in the door. That is what happened at Port Macquarie, Tweed Shire and Warringah. But Auburn is Labor heartland territory and that is why the council’s future is assured.

Peter Fray

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