The North Sydney Olympic Pool.

The North Sydney Olympic Pool has spectacular views, a rich history, and plenty of controversy.

The facility became the face of government rorting last year when local mayor Jilly Gibson insisted on national television that the pool — perched under the Sydney Harbour Bridge — was “a regional facility” and therefore deserving of a $10 million grant earmarked for female change rooms in rural areas.

Now the council has followed up that controversy with a brand new one. As The Sydney Morning Herald revealed this week, it has handed the contract for the pool’s redevelopment to Icon, the company behind Sydney’s disastrous Opal Tower building.

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If the optics weren’t bad enough, independent councillors on the Liberal-dominated council have told Crikey that the process for appointing a builder to the $64 million project has been mired in secrecy.

Councillor Zoe Baker says members of the council including herself have been excluded from seeing the final terms of the contract, signed during the Christmas break, because the decision to appoint Icon was delegated to a subcommittee of members.

“I’m very concerned that there’s a profound lack of transparency around the project generally, but particularly the terms of the contract with Icon,” she said.

“It’s entirely unacceptable that it should be done in such an obscure and wholly unaccountable way.”

Questions over builder

Icon is an unusual choice of builder for the project, which has ballooned from its original $28 million budget. A subsidiary of the company collapsed in November following allegations it owed residents $30 million to repair seven defective apartment buildings across the city that left owners with homes they could neither live in nor rent out.

Gibson insists Icon is up for the job and that questions about transparency are being raised by disgruntled council members with no power. “They’re carrying on like Donald Trump,” she told Crikey. “There aren’t concerns [about Icon]. I haven’t had any concerns raised by anyone.”

The company also insists it’s up to the job, telling the SMH it is “very well-placed” for the project, declining to answer questions about Opal.

Pools of cash

North Sydney council has developed a special talent for attracting money from state and federal coffers. On top of the $10 million it received in federal grants, the North Sydney Olympic Pool also received a $5 million grant through the NSW government’s Greater Sydney Sports Facility Fund, of which two-thirds went to Liberal seats. And in October North Sydney Liberal MP Trent Zimmerman announced $2.1 million to level out the Primrose tennis courts.

“I have never experienced such a level of what I would describe as pork barrelling in terms of unsolicited grant funds provided to our council,” Baker said.

Family ties

North Sydney council is a family affair, with Gibson’s daughter, Alanya Drummond, also a sitting member. Leading the redevelopment alongside Gibson is general manager Ken Gouldthorp.

Before running North Sydney, Gouldthorp was the general manager of Newcastle council where he was hand-picked for the job by ex-mayor Jeff “walking ATM” McCloy. He was sacked by the council in 2015 following McCloy’s ICAC-induced resignation.

Zimmerman was a North Sydney councillor himself while an adviser to former North Sydney MP Joe Hockey. Zimmerman then replaced Hockey at the 2015 byelection.

The safe Liberal seat isn’t looking so safe these days. Zimmerman endured a 4% swing against him in the last election and is under pressure from two vocal resident groups — Voices of North Sydney and Time’s up Trent. It’s a high stakes environment that raises serious questions about why North Sydney has received this money and how it’s being spent. Those questions remain unanswered.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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