Former Litchfield Council chief executive Daniel Fletcher told councillors he had a moral, ethical and professional obligation to report them to the NT Government for their decision to increase the speed limit on Girraween Rd earlier this year, informing them in a briefing note their decision was “unqualified’, “highly irresponsible”, and “deficient in adhering to good decision‐making principles”.
Mr Fletcher, who left the council in March under mysterious circumstances that the council has not explained, sent a briefing note on January 11 to councillors, after they had voted four to three in their December 14 meeting to increase the speed limit from 70 km/h to 80 km/hour on a 2.7km stretch of the road.
The decision was not informed by any community consultation and ignored professional advice.
Those who voted in favour were then-deputy mayor Mathew Salter, Mark Sidey, Kevin Harlan, and Andrew Mackay. Those who voted against were Mayor Doug Barden, now Deputy Mayor Emma Sharp, and Rachel Wright.
The briefing note was obtained by a resident under Freedom of Information laws. Council had first withheld turning over the memo, but it was eventually released after an appeal.
The decision to increase the speed limit was later overturned by the councillors with a fresh “motion without notice” put at the ordinary January council meeting which imposed a stay on the increase until various issues were resolved, including obtaining a qualified traffic engineer assessment on the risk associated with increasing the speed limit.
That meeting was held seven days after Mr Fletcher sent the councillors the briefing note, just after 7pm during a special closed-to-the-public strategic meeting of councillors.
Cr Sidey and Cr Mackay changed their minds in the January motion, voting to postpone the speed increase.
A report prepared for the councillors by Litchfield’s infrastructure and assets manager Rodney Jessup recommended the speed limit remain at 70km/h because the upgraded intersection at Hillier Rd was designed for a 70km/h speed limit and, he said, the reduced speed limit had made the road safer with less crashes.
The councillors were told this at the meeting and were warned it was dangerous to increase the speed limit.
The report seemed to be based on the findings of a road safety audit done in 2016 when the council was planning to apply for Blackspot funding, along with crash data from the 12 months leading up to the meeting. But the original audit was not provided to councillors.
They were also told when the intersection was designed there was no intent to increase the speed back up to 80km/h, however the idea of 12-month trial at 70 km/h followed by a review was added to the motion for the December 2020 meeting.
In his note to council, Mr Fletcher said the CEO had a moral, ethical, and professional obligation to inform the NT Government if decision making of the council had been, or is being, compromised by misconduct or wilful disregard for professional advice – including technical and specialist advice.
“Continued disregard of professional/specialised/expert advice will invariably compromise good governance and good decision‐making principles,” he wrote.
“Thus, it is conceivable that Litchfield Council could, and indeed should, be viewed as dysfunctional by the Northern Territory Government.”
He wrote that while the collective self‐concept of the council was as advocates for the community, as impartial, non‐judgmental democratically elected leaders, or as professional politicians, it had resulted in “complicity in conduct that is ultimately not in the organisation’s interest”.
“Certainly not in the public interest, and easily considered by the ‘average punter’ to be immoral and seriously questionable,” he wrote.
Mr Fletcher said there was no community consultation undertaken, or even considered, nor consultation with the NT Police, with no consideration of good decision‐making principles and professional advice wilfully ignored.
He said the last point had the potential to be legally considered as negligent, as no reasons, evidence, or technical data was used to support the decision.
“Which can now only be categorised as opinion‐based,” he wrote.
“Concerningly, there appears to be a common assumption by many elected members, though not all, that decisions should be informed by the expertise contained within the elected member body rather than by the objective, professional, and technical advice of specialist staff (or engaged consultants).
“This is symptomatic of the platform on which many elected members consider themselves having been elected – fighting for a ‘laid back’ rural area retaining ‘our lifestyle’ and not being impeded by restrictions (legislative or regulatory) and a misguided belief that the administration needs to be held to account for unreasonable rate increases, and poor decisions around expenditure and budget, rather than worked with to implement the direction of the current council.”
Decision exposed council to legal risk
In the briefing note, Mr Fletcher told the councillors they were legally exposed due to “wilfully and negligently disregarding the sound technical and professional advice provided”.
He wrote that if there was a fatal car crash at the Girraween Rd – Hillier Rd intersection, the councillors who voted in favour of the speed increase could be criminally and civilly liable under section 57 of the Local Government Act 2019.
“There is an argument now that those councillors who ignored their duties to act in good faith and with due care may now be exposed to breaching the code of conduct,” he wrote.
“If this is the case, any legal expenses incurred will not be covered by council (through our insurance policy provisions), and those councillors will personally be liable to cover any litigation costs and penalties imposed.”
Under a heading of “possible solution for consideration”, Mr Fletcher wrote there was an “opportunity to reorientate the decision” which could still see the speed limit increased but “properly demonstrate good governance and decision‐making principles”.
He said councillors needed to consult with the community and police, as well as receive advice in writing from council’s insurers as to the impact of the decision to increase the speed limit, contrary to the technical advice provided, and it would be “prudent to engage a qualified traffic engineer to conduct an assessment on the increased speed limit”.
The response to the CEO’s accusations
On Friday, January 14, three days after he had received the note from Mr Fletcher, Mr Barden emailed his fellow councillors expressing his anger at what the CE had written.
“I refused to answer the phone on Tuesday & until 4.30 pm on Wednesday from the council due to my disappointment & anger with the email that was sent during the briefing on Tuesday night,” he wrote.
“I have had meetings with Daniel & Diana today to express my displeasure. Anyway, I feel it is important for me to express the below & we all get over it. Maybe I have got some of it wrong, however, this is how I understand it.”
In another email to councilllor Keven Harlan on Sunday January 16, he said he had spoken about Mr Fletcher’s note with an un-named “friend”.
“(A) Friend rung me back later that night & said ‘you guys have been set up, I can bet my bottom dollar that his (Mr Fletcher’s) email is already in at the dept. & he is telling them that your [sic] all a mob of cowboys & that the Dept. needs to sack us all & that he can’t work with us’ or something similar,” he wrote.
“He told me that this is serious & that I needed to call a special council meeting & sort this out ASAP. Admittedly my friend does not know the detail.”
Mr Barden would not answer questions put by the NT Independent about Mr Fletcher, nor answer whether the former CEO had made a complaint to the government about councillors. He also would not say who the “friend” was and why he would be talking about such sensitive council business with them.
He said Litchfield Council “strives” to follow the Local Government Act in its decision making, but neglected to specify if they followed the requirements of the act in this instance.
“As the mayor of Litchfield Council, I encourage all members to openly express their views at council meetings so we can make the best informed decisions for our community,” he told the NT Independent despite no question being asked about this.
“Council has commenced its recruitment process for a new CEO to lead the organisation to deliver on council’s priorities and I do not consider it is productive to make any comment on the actions of the former CEO.”
Councillor Emma Sharp sent an email on the Saturday to all councillors saying she had ‘several concerns”.
“In a nutshell, OUR decision made without the appropriate information, has left Litchfield Council staff, elected members, and the public who use the road open to multiple high/extreme risks,” she wrote.
“Even though I might be exempt from any financial risk due to my vote, at the end of the day, if the ship goes down, we ALL drown.”
Cr Harlan said all inquires needed to be directed to the mayor. None of the other councillors responded to the NT Independent.
Mr Fletcher did not respond to questions sent by the NT Independent.
Local Government Minister Chanston Paech also did not respond to questions about whether Mr Fletcher had made a complaint about the councillors or what action was being taken.
The saga of Girraween Rd speed limit
At the December 14 council meeting, Litchfield councillors voted four to three in favour of raising the speed limit on a small stretch of Girrwaeen Rd, which runs about 2.7km from 300m south of the roundabout near the Stuart Hwy near Coolalinga to Azure Court.
The speed limit was reduced to 70 km/h as a 12-month trial soon after the construction of a new intersection creating a new lane for those travelling north to turn right into Hillier Rd. The intersection was upgraded using Federal Government Blackspot funding.
The original motion put at the December 9, 2020 council meeting was amended to include a review after 12 months, which was what the December 2021 meeting voted on.
The report for the councillors at the December 2021 meeting by Mr Jessup recommended the speed limit remain at 70km/h on the basis that the Hillier Rd intersection upgrade was designed for a 70km/h speed limit and the reduced speed limit had resulted in a safer road for users.
He said the Hillier Rd intersection was the site of many accidents that caused people to be admitted to hospital.
“Road crash data identified that this area of Girraween Rd has a high prevalence of motor vehicle collisions with speed identified as a key contributing factor,” he wrote.
The Blackspot funding grant submission was supported by a detailed Road Safety Audit undertaken by I3 consultants from Western Australia, in 2016, which councillors did not look at before they made their decision at the end of last year.
Mr Jessup said the RSA recommended the turning lane and the guard rails, and council reduced the speed in that part of the road because the road had a relatively narrow verge with numerous properties’ accesses, some of which serious accidents have occurred at.
He said that most property accesses had very limited area for people to get off the road, with narrow culverts, and there were several intersections in the area with varying treatments, most of which have no turning lanes.
The report also said there was a lot of traffic in peak periods and the council felt the reduction would decrease the amount and severity of crashes.
“A review of the speed controls introduced has been performed, with details of crash data provided by Road Safety NT, suggesting that since the introduction there have been no serious incidents reported,” he wrote.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this article said Cr Wright said had changed her vote at the the January meeting. This was incorrect and the NT Independent aplogises for the error.