Mayor Herbert swept up in WCC credit card scandal

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Silence: Mayor Tony Herbert is running a mile from the credit card scandal that has been exposed within council. Image: WCC.

Carol Altmann – The Terrier

Tonight I start drilling into the detail of that big fat spending on one Warrnambool City Council corporate credit card and who is supposed to be keeping an eye on things.

Because, as it turns out, three of the people who are supposed to be keeping an eye on things have also been sitting at the very tables where the breakfasts and brunches have been served.

This includes Mayor Tony Herbert.

And it includes City Growth Manager Andrew Paton, who is designated to scrutinise and authorise spending on the credit card held by Visitor Economy Manager David McMahon.

Both of these people – Mayor Herbert and Mr Paton – are on a council tourism committee (VEAC) with Mr McMahon, with Cr Herbert as co-chair.

Cr David Owen was also on the committee.

As a result of Freedom of Information and cross-checking, I can tell you that this committee held every single one of its meetings in 2017 and 2018 over breakfast at either a café or restaurant.

And, you guessed it, each time the bill was paid with Mr McMahon’s credit card.

 

And each time that bill was well over $100: a $165 breakfast at the Pavilion, a $161 breakfast at the Mid City Motel, a $133 breakfast at Brightbird, another $112 meeting at Brightbird…

VEAC is the only committee of the council’s seven advisory committees to do this.

Official meet and eat: Breakfast at the Mid City Motel in May last year for $161.

All the other committees hold their meetings in council offices, probably under harsh lights and over a packet of assorted creams.

But wait, there’s more. There always is.

According to the documents released through FOI, Mr McMahon also wrote “VEAC” on a string of receipts that have nothing to do with VEAC’s official meetings.

In terms of accountability, this is the most worrisome. 

 

When VEAC meets, it has to take minutes and these minutes are reported to council: those are the rules set out in its terms of reference.

Yet Mr McMahon’s receipts show claims for a string of “VEAC” breakfasts and brunches for which there are no minutes, or any public record at all that I could find.

Perhaps this is because most of these meals were enjoyed in the summer holiday period and so maybe everyone was wearing shorts and nobody had a pen.

As a result, we have no idea why the gathering was held, who was there, or what was discussed.

 

These five summer gatherings included:

a $154 breakfast at Main Beach Kiosk on 21 December 2017,

a $51 lunch at The Pavilion on Wednesday 3 January 2018;

$13 spent at Fishtales on Saturday 6 January 2018;

an $80.50 brunch at The Pavilion on Friday 12 January 2018 and;

a $102 breakfast at Clovelly Restaurant on Thursday 15 February 2018.

Boy, that is one very enthusiastic committee, which it isn’t, because it recently fell over and pretty much had to start again, but that is another story.

Of the above, one receipt in particular leaps off the page: the $80.50 spent at The Pavilion on 12 January 2018.

This $80.50 brunch was held during school holidays and included a kid’s pancake and two milkshakes: one caramel, one banana. In the absence of any further explanation, make of that what you will.

For other meals, there was no itemised receipt at all.

 

Despite this, all of the receipts were approved, so you and I and every other Warrnambool ratepayer picked up the bill.

An unofficial VEAC meeting over a $102 breakfast at Clovelly Restaurant in February 2018. There is no public record of who attended or what was discussed.

Mayor Herbert has made much of the council being “transparent” and he loves to use this word when he talks about the council under his watch: it sounds impressive, noble even, but in reality it rings hollow.

As he was committee chair and is the Mayor, I sent Cr Herbert a number of questions 12 days ago about this VEAC spending, including why it was allowed, whether he knew about the “unofficial” meetings, and how it could be justified to ratepayers.

The response from Mayor Herbert has been silence.

The response from the council has been silence.

Welcome to transparency and accountability, Warrnambool City Council style.

 

Only Cr Owen, who as we know is battling cancer, got back to me within 30 minutes of my questions and said he was “mortified” to learn that the meals for the official VEAC meetings had been paid for by ratepayers. He offered to repay his share.

This whole scenario strikes at the heart of what this credit card saga is all about:

Can all of the spending be justified?

Is all of it scrutinised?

As we are talking about public money, these questions apply whether it is a $7 banana milkshake or $600 worth of grazing plates.

It appears at some point that someone raised a red flag, because between $5000 and $6000 was repaid on Mr McMahon’s credit card before this all became public via FOI.

That is a lot of money.  It means either the council’s credit card policy was extremely vague, or it was ignored.

 

We are not supposed to know about the repayments, but I will be writing more about those later.

To be super clear, the big picture here is about that dull word called governance, which is why the Victorian Auditor General’s Office has recently been all over the potential for credit card fraud by council staff.

The CEO of Strathbogie Shire Council resigned earlier this month after the Auditor General exposed credit card problems very similar to those we are seeing here.

And remember, what I am exposing is just one of the 81 credit cards in use at the WCC.

More soon.

In the meantime, I want to thank each of you for supporting The Terrier by either throwing something into The Terrier Tip Jar, which helps pay for FOIs, or sharing my stories on social media, or telling a friend, or liking the FB page…. thankyou. We are keeping the bastards honest.

On we go.

*VEAC is made up of two councillors, two senior WCC staff and five members of the community. I am not naming the community members, as they are not responsible for running the committee. Cr Peter Hulin is the new chair of VEAC and Cr Herbert is co-chair. Its first meeting for 2019 was held in offices at Flagstaff Hill.

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17 thoughts on “Mayor Herbert swept up in WCC credit card scandal”

  1. I hope your are referring all these matters to the premier, opposition leader, local government minister and opposite, ombudsman, IBAC, auditor general, inspectorate and all local members of parliament including the upper house. This is disgusting behavior and must be dealt with swiftly. An all this happened under the watch of a former CEO whose legacy now lies before us. We the ratepayer again have to pay the price of a culture of greed and glutony. It’s more than that. The organisation is so out of touch with contemporary public sector governance it’s as if it’s beyond repair. The government must move swiftly and fix this. It’s just not right. More to the point it’s just not fair on the hardworking members of our community who deserve a whole lot more. Would be good for you to seek comment from all Councillors on this and the CEO. Let’s see which side of the fence they fall. They’re either for good governance, transparency and accountability or they’re not. Where is The Standard on all of this. Why aren’t they reporting. Think I’ll move back to Melbourne. I’ve had enough.

    1. I, too, hope this will be picked up by the powers that be. I am (still) just working on putting all the information out there. The council and councillors and CEO and Mayor and credit card holder are all welcome to make comment at any time, but so far, nobody other than Cr Owen has taken up the opportunity to respond publicly.

      1. I applaud your work Carol and hope you keep it up , our council needs to be held accountable. But the only way the powers to be will pick up this is if it’s shoved firmly in there hands at a place where they can’t just put it down or drop it on the way side

    2. The Standard will not spend the time nor the money required to do this kind of investigative reporting. Some of that is they are owned by a larger media company that controls the purse strings and it just becomes easier to just top and tail media releases in those circumstances. I fear a relationship of mutual dependence has developed between the two.

      1. to add to Jim’s point, the Standard won’t want to be seen to be following up Carol’s already comprehensive reporting, unless they can find a new angle to it. And yes, they aren’t spending much if any on investigative reporting, compared to 5-10 years ago when they were breaking some pretty significant council stories.
        Advertising revenue is the catch 22 – small newspapers often rely on those paid weekly columns and public notices to survive but councils can hold it over a media outlet’s head if too many negative stories are run. Goes double for councillors or council PR people who don’t return calls to journos they see as unhelpful.
        With the overall credit card issue, readers should report it to any of the responsible agencies. Carols’ done the hard work in putting it out there and ratepayers can support that effort by putting in a complaint and sending the weblink to these stories. Enough complaints like that and it has to be taken seriously

  2. Bloody Hell accountability please !!!! & they have the cheek to put our rates up, this if it is correct is fraud

  3. Unfortunately, our Warrnambool citizens keep on voting for the same old faces every Council election. The only way to properly address these misdoings, is to have the State Government sack the lot, as they did in Geelong. I think you have provided enough evidence of shady practices, greed and misuse of public moneys to warrant such action. We need a completely new Council; one that will govern the town for the people, not for their corporate mates.

  4. Congratulations ‘Terrier’ on your sleuthing and reporting!
    Keep up the good work! Hope to see your vigilance rewarded soon.

  5. Carol, who should we express our disgust to outside of the WCC?
    We need to start making more noise…

    1. Dear C,
      I think the next step would be to ask the Local Government Inspectorate and possibly even IBAC to take a closer look at all this. Both can be done online and confidentially. In fact IBAC just ran a campaign on calling out such things within local councils and encouraging people to speak up. I hope people do.

  6. Well done on your work and more strength to your arm. Well written and researched. Maybe a link to the local member may be of use as well as the Inspecterate. It is scandalous and am not surprised by the silence. They will be scuttling to Rectify other discrepancy’s before you get to them.

  7. Well done for your research into this matter Carol , many people are hurting financially, finding it difficult to survive & pay their every day bills. These greedy people in influential position are voting to raise our rates above the cpi. This iusse should be handed on to the relevant department and scrutinize regularly. Where the transparency?

  8. Thanks for providing such information to the public. Tony had his house on the market for $1.9million and still has the council picking up his bills, not to mention his other investment properties around town. Tony should be ashamed and be thinking of the locals and small business rather than himself as mayor. Hopefully we don’t see him sipping so many lattes around town, and him doing some real work now.

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