BY ALEX EUGENE
City of Sydney councillors now have so little faith in the Lord Mayor Clover Moore and her constituents, that they were led to believe a chain email claiming city buildings were up for sale had genuinely been endorsed by the Mayor.
The Mayor’s lack of transparency has been decried constantly by several councillors on a number of issues, from financial accountability to council’s refusal to live stream its meetings — coming to a head in June when the Deputy Lord Mayor, Kerryn Phelps stepped down from her position in the Clover Moore independent team, after claiming she was being stripped of duties and pushed further and further to the sidelines for questioning financial matters. Though in her announcement she said she did not have any concerns about honesty, she said she could no longer tolerate the closed-door policy of the Mayor.
Arguments broke out at Monday’s council meeting over the four city buildings allegedly being put on the market for sale, after Independent Councillor Angela Vithoulkas moved a motion to launch an urgent full commission enquiry into the matter. Cr Vithoulkas took the email at face value and alleged the sale of the buildings was a breach of conduct by the council.
The document, which had been circulated to thousands of Sydneysiders on an email list presented the four buildings as “open for expressions of interest”.
The email was accompanied by an alleged quote from the Lord Mayor, saying: “these properties are in a strategic location and have enormous potential, but they need significant capital investment that would place a huge strain on the City’s financial resources.”
Cr Vithoulkas said: “imagine my shock when I discovered that the buildings were for sale,” referring to the email which was the first time she had received the information.
The list sent included the Taylor Square building – 1-5 Flinders St; 110-122 Oxford Street; 56-76 Oxford St; and 82-106 Oxford St. All are enormous public buildings which in the past have housed queer nightclubs, art galleries, restaurants and idiosyncratic shops, but which all fell victim to the struggling patronage of the area since lockout laws killed nightlife and the vibrant culture of the area.
Cr Vithoulkas began giving out copies of the CBRE email, but was asked to discuss the matter further in private, and a break was announced by the Lord Mayor.
When the meeting was reconvened, the City of Sydney CEO fumbled to defend the allegation that the buildings had been put up for sale, saying “I wish it hadn’t happened, but we didn’t instigate this.”
“We have used CBRE before, but no one has been engaged to do anything. People misinterpret committee meetings all the time; we try to tell them,” she said, claiming that the agent must have got the information from a committee meeting and “misinterpreted” the matter of council’s investment strategies, which may have been discussed, but not confirmed.
Other councillors played down the incident, saying it was “just real estate agents” and that the behaviour was to be expected.
Cr Linda Scott spoke to the matter pointing out that the information circulated made the City look as though it had certainly put its buildings on the market, and that it “smacked of endorsement that we are selling”, especially given that it was signed off by the agent saying “if you have any further questions…do not hesitate to contact me directly.”
“This does matter, because we need people to know that we do not lie to our public,” she said.
The City CEO said she would write to CBRE telling them they “should not have written the email.”
Councillor Scott has also recently expressed concern that the real reason Council is looking to profit from city buildings is to top up the cost of the budget-blowing light rail works, which are running hugely over the schedule to the tune of almost $100million.
At Monday’s meeting, Cr Scott also asked for an explanation about $55million that was not spent last year on infrastructure projects, and was rebuffed again by the CEO who claimed the money was simply being “rolled over” to future years budgets for when projects would be completed. When asked exactly which projects were covered by the $55million in question, the CEO replied that Cr Scott should look at the quarterly budgets she was sent previously.
Cr Vithoulkas withdrew her motion to launch an enquiry after speaking privately to the Mayor and CEO during the meeting break. The original motion to continue with the City’s property investment strategy, which currently only includes leasing buildings, was passed.
CBRE claimed not to have any record of the buildings on sale the next day when contacted by City Hub.