Blue Mountains City Council welcomes Final Report for Public Inquiry

Blue Mountains City Council has welcomed the Final Report of the Public Inquiry into asbestos management that found there was no basis for dismissal of the elected Council.

The Public Inquiry, led by Commissioner Richard Beasley SC, found that failings in asbestos management prior to mid-2017 have since been remedied by the organisation and that Councillors did not know about these failings before they became public.

The Inquiry also found that Blue Mountains City Council is on the path of being an “exemplar” in the management of asbestos. Also, that a toolkit the Council is developing, should be distributed to councils throughout the state to assist them in their ongoing asbestos management.

Mayor Mark Greenhill said: “The elected councillors have been cleared on every count, by this Final Report. I thank the Commissioner for his findings. These findings and the Ombudsman’s report, together, paint a clear picture.

“The Ombudsman found that SafeWork NSW issued notices to the Council that were either unlawful or inappropriate. This resulted in SafeWork being forced to apologise and pay compensation to the Council.

“While there were genuine problems, it is impossible to escape the conclusion that there was a fair measure of politics at play as well.

“There were no jobs for the boys. Mr Tooma, the independent investigator, was not conflicted.

“The Public Inquiry found at all times the elected Councillors, when informed, acted appropriately and diligently.

“I thank the majority of Councillors for patiently awaiting the evidence and for balancing their responses against the facts.

“In addition, the Commissioner properly described some comments made by a shock jock as “utter tripe” which the Commissioner rightly stated affected peoples’ lives.

“The Public Inquiry finds that any failings in asbestos management were not known to the Councillors or Council Executive, but when they became aware they worked together to investigate and address them.

“Most importantly, the Council has fixed past organisational mistakes in relation to asbestos management.

“I thank the Executive Leadership Team for making that possible by their diligence. I single Dr Rosemary Dillon out for particular mention. She always acts with professionalism and integrity.

“To the workers of the Council and community, I say that in repairing these problems we regarded your safety as our paramount concern.”

The Inquiry, which lasted from June 2018 to March 2021 and included more than 30 days of public hearings, required the extensive commitment of Council Staff and the production to the Inquiry of what amounts to tens of thousands of pages of documents.

The Final Report said Council and its legal representatives at all times cooperated with the Inquiry in a helpful, mature and non-defensive fashion. In addition, that the Council had co-operated fully and appropriately with SafeWork NSW, the Environment Protection Authority and the Office of Local Government.

Blue Mountains City Council thanked the Public Inquiry for its comprehensive and careful work.

CEO Dr Rosemary Dillon said: “The events of 2017 and early 2018, including relentless media attacks on the Council and the multiple inquiries and investigations into the Council, have taken a massive toll on the organisation, on Staff and on the City, as Commissioner Beasley has acknowledged. Those events and investigations also impacted all of the agencies involved. It is my hope that we can now move forward, and continue to help other local government areas in managing asbestos safely.”

Background information

  • Following media allegations against the Council in 2017, and prior to the Public Inquiry being established, the governing body of the Council initiated two independent inquiries in November 2017:
    • One conducted by Mr Tooma of Clyde & Co lawyers in relation to asbestos matters
    • One by S Reid of McCullough Robertson Lawyers.
  • After issuing two notices of intention to suspend the elected Council, the Minister for Local Government on 27 June 2018 announced a Public Inquiry into Blue Mountains City Council.
  • Public hearings for ToR4 were conducted in April 2019 and a First Interim Report released on 7 May 2019. This report confirmed that the Council’s decisions and actions in relation to the process of engaging independent investigators were reasonable and appropriate.
  • It became necessary to re-open hearings for Terms of Reference (ToR) 4 after assertions were broadcast on radio that the Commissioner had been “misled” by Council at the April hearings and a witness had lied.
  • Further public hearings were held into ToR4 in June 2019. Those hearings found that the Commissioner was not misled by the Council, and the Council witness referred to had not lied under oath. A Supplementary Interim Report provided to the Minister on 31 July 2019 confirmed these matters, and all the findings made in the First Interim Report. 2GB’s Ray Hadley “unreservedly” apologised to BMCC Chief Executive Officer Dr Rosemary Dillon on air “for any hurt or distress caused”.
  • ToR 3, 6 and 8 related broadly to employment and organisational structure matters. Public hearings relating to these were held in September 2019. An Interim Report dated 14 January 2020 was provided to the Minister that cleared the Council of any wrongdoing, with no adverse findings.
  • Public hearings into the asbestos terms of reference (ToR 1, 2, 5, 6 {part only}, 7 and 9) commenced on 9 March 2020. These hearings were adjourned due to the COVID-19 pandemic and resumed in September and October 2020. While this Final Report found statutory failings by the organisation in relation to its asbestos management in the period January 2013 to 2017, since then the report found that the organisation and the elected body have acted in a manner that is consistent with all relevant provisions of the Local Government Act. Read the Final Report
  • The last submissions to the Public Inquiry by various interested parties were received on 24 December 2020.
  • Prior to the conclusion of public hearings, each of SafeWork, the EPA and the Ombudsman had concluded their inquiries:
    • For the EPA, it resulted in one caution being issued but no further action being taken against the Council.
    • For SafeWork this resulted in the Council providing it with an Enforceable Undertaking. Read more information here.
    • For the Ombudsman, it resulted in his report to Parliament dated 21 August 2020. The NSW Ombudsman recommended that SafeWork NSW apologise to the Council “for the way it conducted its compliance activities in 2017-2018 and acknowledge the detrimental impact on Council, Staff and ratepayers for its actions”, as well as pay compensation. Read the report here.

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