Council in court

As reported in the October 26, 2010, edition of The Standard.
As reported in the October 26, 2010, edition of The Standard.

IN the Adelaide District Court last week, former Murray Bridge council chief executive officer Damien Moloney told the court he had considered resigning just months before he was sacked because of smear campaigns and false accusations.

Mr Moloney aired council business as he appeared before Judge Slattery to discuss problems leading up to his December dismissal for which he is claiming breach of contract.

However, Mr Moloney’s claim was denied by lawyers for the council who said his sacking was a legitimate process.

In his testimony, Mr Moloney said he was subjected to 18 months of undermining behaviour by four of the nine Murray Bridge elected members, ranging from petty code of conduct complaints to serious but unproven accusations including breaking and entering and corruption.

He said he was unaware of any ill feeling among councillors until Phillip Nutt, a councillor at the time, told him another councillor was making statements claiming he was taking payments and other rewards from developers.

The court heard that Mr Moloney had been at the council just over a year and passed his first performance review with flying colours just prior to the accusations.

In court, the 51-year-old said prior to his dismissal some councillors made a string of code of conduct complaints against him including a complaint by Cr Weinmann, who objected to the way Mr Moloney looked at him during a meeting.

“Cr Weinmann went to the Independent Governance Panel and was found guilty of making disparaging remarks and was asked to apologise publicly, both in writing and verbally,” Mr Moloney said in court.

“He refused.”

Mr Moloney said after the accusations escalated he received legal advice, paid for by the council, and as a result councillors June Phillips, Theo Weinmann, Clem Shubert and Milton Wienert were instructed not to approach him directly any more.

During questioning, Mr Moloney said he did not feel a critical report he wrote on council governance in the first four months of his term soured his relationship with the four councillors.

He said the report claimed most senior managers were either incapable or were not providing appropriate information, found lapses in dealing with contract procurement and outstanding leases and liability issues dating back years.

“The biggest issue was that the council financials were greatly in debt yet the books were showing they were quite even,” he told the Court.

Mr Moloney said when the report was submitted to the council he received members’ full support with a motion allowing him to make changes and bring the council up to contemporary best practice standards.

The Court heard that early in 2011 further accusations were levelled against Mr Moloney and other staff members, resulting in a police anti-corruption investigation.

“A Mr Watson raised a series of very serious allegations,” he said.

“They raised issues again of corruption, sexual misconduct and I could keep going.”

In May 2011, Mr Moloney said he felt his position at the council was insecure and tried to get his contract strengthened, but failed.

During that time he also sought his own legal representation, concerned about the corruption allegation.

Mr Moloney said a second outstanding performance review in July 2011 was soon followed by another complaint.

“ I’d been under a lot of stress and the Mayor came in and handed me the complaint and I said ‘this is ridiculous, these complaints are getting more frivolous and vexatious as this goes on” and then I said “I am extremely stressed, I am going home”,” he said

The Court heard that he then spent the next eight weeks on sick leave.

When Mayor Allan Arbon took the stand for the defence he blamed the problems between Mr Moloney and the councillors on personality issues.

When asked whether the councillors in question had conducted themselves appropriately he said their behaviour was unfortunate but there were always two sides to a question.

Mayor Arbon told the Court a report by Wallman Lawyers had found no base for the code of conduct complaints against Mr Moloney nor had an independent govern-ance panel found any substance to them.

Mayor Arbon said the code of conduct complaints against councillors were also investigated.

“There weren’t any regulated penalties that could take place (against councillors) other than the recommendation to apologise which the councillor chose not to do,” he said.

“If a councillor does something wrong there does not seem to be any penalties that can be imposed.”

Mayor Arbon told the Court that former policeman Mick Symons was asked to investigate some of the allegations made against Mr Moloney but had not reported back before Mr Moloney’s employment was ended.

He said Mr Symons was also invited to conduct code of conduct training session with councillors in the hope of diffusing future problems.

Mr Maloney’s lawyer told the Court that after various investigations no charges made against Mr Moloney by any councillors had been proven.

The Court heard that despite recent outstanding performance reviews Mr Moloney lost the backing of five supporting councillors and his employment was terminated on December 13, six days before he was due to return to work from sick leave.

Mayor Arbon said support for Mr Moloney waned after he asked to address councillors at a meeting on September 11, 2011.

“He was quite forthright with councillors and the deputy mayor asked him if he thought he had the full support of the council, and he said no.”

Mayor Arbon said a vote to dismiss Mr Moloney was unanimous and he was notified on December 13 and given three months’ pay in lieu of notice and six months’ remuneration.

Lawyers for the defence argued that the compliance with due process meant no breach of contract had occurred.

Former Wallman’s Lawyers partner Michael John Kelledy told the court that by December 2011 the relationship between Mr Moloney and councillors had well and truly broken down and it was decided to invoke clause 14.3.2 of his employment contract which allowed the council to sack him without cause and determine his payout.

The case of Damien Moloney versus The Rural City of Murray Bridge ran for three days beginning August 13.

Judge Slattery is expected to deliver judgement in the next 35 days.