Independents try to reverse Newcastle council pay rise as debate embroils new CEO

CONCERNS: Liberal councillor Brad Luke says the pay-rise issue should have waited until after the council’s new chief executive officer was appointed. Picture: Simone De PeakNewcastle’s four Independent councillors have moved to reverse last week’s decision to accept a 16 per cent pay rise, and Liberal councillor Brad Luke says the timing of the pay hike raisesgovernance issues over the appointment of new chief executive officer Jeremy Bath.
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IndependentsKath Elliott, John Church, Allan Robinson and Andrea Rufohave lodged a rescission motionarguing it was “inappropriate” to increase fees for the lord mayor by 22 per cent and other councillors by 16 per cent while burdening ratepayers with consecutive eight per cent rate rises.

Meanwhile, Cr Luke told the Newcastle Herald he believed it was inappropriate for MrBath to recommend a pay rise for councillors while he was a candidate for the chief executivejob.

Councillors voted unanimously last week to appoint Mr Bath, who had been acting in an interim capacity since May. He is now on a five-year contract with a salary understood to be more than $400,000.

Later at the same meeting, the seven Labor councillors outvoted theIndependents, Cr Luke and John Mackenzie (Greens) to accept a recommendation to take the maximum pay rise allowable under a Local Government Remuneration Tribunal ruling in April.

The decision meanscouncillors’ remuneration will rise from $26,213 to $30,500 and lord mayor Nuatali Nelmes’ overall pay will increase from$102,610 to $125,500.

Councillor Brad Luke

The councillors also approved a recommendation that they automatically take the maximum pay rise allowable by the tribunal until 2021, instead of debating the issue each year.

Lake Macquarie City Council voted in June to accept a pay rise which resulted in mayor Kay Fraser’spay jumping 29 per cent,from$87,590 to$113,280.

Mr Bath’s name was not on the staff report recommending the Newcastle pay rise, but it was his decision to revisit the issue and recommend the maximum increase.

Cr Luke said the timing of the pay-rise debate and Mr Bath’s candidacy for the CEO’s job raised governance issues for the council.

“While he was a candidate for an extremely highly paid job, he made a recommendation off his own bat for a major pay rise to the people who were selecting him for the job,” Cr Luke said.

“There was no legal reason for it to come up. We handled it in June. He broke with all tradition of staff not making a recommendation and decided to make a recommendation.

“If he felt so strongly about that, he could have at least left it until after the new CEO had been chosen.”

The previous council voted against a pay rise in June, when a report from staff left it up to councillors how much of the tribunal rise they wanted to awardthemselves.

Cr Luke said the new pay recommendation had come “out of the blue”.

“To do it during the process of being selected, to me, raises major questions,” he said.“It is not something that would normally come to us at this time. It was handled in June.

“It does raise the question for the state government: Is this something that could be looked at in more depth?”

A spokeswoman for the Minister for Local Government, Gabrielle Upton, saidneither the minister nor the Office of Local Government had received a complaint about the issue.

Jeremy Bath

Mr Bath said any attempts to link the councillors’pay-rise decision with his appointment were“completely incorrect”.

He said he had told his staff that councillors should receive the maximum amount allowable under theindependenttribunal’s ruling, but he hadno role in the timing of the subsequent report.

“I take complete ownership of the paper and the amountproposed by the tribunal. The only thing I had nothing to do with was the timing of the paper,” he said.“Thatwas actually determined by the manager of our legal and governance team.

“I didn’t have a preference on the timing. My only opinion was that it needed to be put to the new council.”

Mr Bath saidhe could have delayedthe pay debate to avoid perceptions of a conflict of interest but no councillors had approached him with concernsbefore the report was presented.

“The paperdidn’t have my name to it, so there was absolutely no reason for a councillor to associate it with me and for it to supposedly influence their decision onthe preferred candidate for the CEO role.I knew that the paper regarding my pre-selection would be the first matter of the night.

“This is revisionist history. This is now saying,‘Now we know that Jeremy was driving this, it should have been revealed and it should have been done at another time.’

“No councillor can tell you thatthe proposal to reconsider feesinfluenced their decision whether to appoint me or not appoint me, because, as they will admit, theydidn’t knowwhen they unanimously voted for my appointment. It’s a complete non-issue.”

Mr Bath’s appointment followed a council votein September to form a three-member recruitment panel to assess a shortlist of candidates from a private recruitment agency.

Cr Church said the “optics” of the pay rise and CEO appointment “aren’t good”, but “I don’t see how those two things are linked”.

Cr Nelmesdismissed Cr Luke’s concerns as political “muck-raking” and said no councillors had raised the issue of a conflict of interest before or during the debate about appointing Mr Bath.

“It just seems to be an afterthought from people who have no vision for Newcastle and want to roll around in the mud,” she said.

“These people have rolled around in the mud for years and chucked a lot of it my way as well, so now they’ve got somebody else to chuck some mud at they’re going to throw some mud there.

“There’s a whole executive leadership team that goes through and puts different items on the agenda depending on when the reports are ready.

“I would imagine it’s just a coincidence that they’re both on at the same time.

“Jeremy’s appointment was unanimous.”

She said the politicisation of the pay issue reinforced her belief, which she had expressed in writing to the minister, thatcouncillors should not vote on their own remuneration.

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