Shellharbour councilors voted unanimously to seek advice about what legal action they could take against Gareth Ward if comments he made about the council blackmailing the NSW Government prove untrue.
Councillors held an urgent meeting on Tuesday night to discuss Mr Ward’s claim, published in the Mercury last week, that the council was “blackmailing” the government over a land transfer needed to build the Albion Park Rail bypass.
Councillors Peter Moran and John Murray called the meeting, saying they were concerned about any inference that someone from within the council could be involved in corruption.
“Mr Ward is alleging someone is trying to blackmail the government, and that's a serious criminal offence,” Cr Murray told the council.
“If this is true, it's incumbent on the organisation to do something about that, and if it isn't true it’s incumbent on us to defend the good name of our staff.”
Cr Murray asked general manager Carey McIntyre to engage the council’s code of conduct review panel to investigate Mr Ward’s claims. Councillors also voted to ask Mr McIntyre to look into what legal action the council could take if the allegations were unsubstantiated.
Cr Moran said the immediate investigation was necessary, as a finding of corruption within the council’s ranks would have “huge ramifications for the council”.
“If a council officer has gone rogue then it's really something councillors and the general manager need to be aware of,” he said.
“I have faith in council officers who have been conducting negotiations with the RMS. I don't believe the person appointed from code of conduct will find any criminal or potentially corrupt conduct.
“I would urge Mr Ward to withdraw and apologise [for his comments].”
Mayor Marianne Saliba, who says she will also seek legal advice individually over comments Mr Ward has made about her actions regarding the bypass land, said Mr Ward would need to “produce the evidence he has that says blackmail is taking place” as part of the council’s review.
Ahead of the council’s meeting, Mr Ward said he stood by the comments he made last week to the Mercury.
“I stand by my comments that I was advised by the RMS that Shellharbour council is delaying this project because they are seeking support for other projects from the government – and that is not acceptable,” he said.
“Either the council is lying, or the council is accusing the RMS of lying – and I don’t believe the RMS is lying.”
He said one of his staff had filled out a statutory declaration about the RMS meeting confirming his version of events.
Mr Ward would not say if he would take legal action of his own after the council last week referred him to ICAC. However, he said he would defend himself against any legal action.
“I believe the allegations [against me] are so breathtakingly stupid that no one would give them any credibility,” he said.
Mr Ward also said he was willing to “extend an olive branch” and withdraw his initial comments if the council were to resolve to take steps to sell the land.
“The council should be having a meeting and resolving to work with us, people are over the tantrums – let’s just get something done,” he said.
“If the council were to resolve tonight that they want to progress with the bypass and direct the General Manager to do everything they can, I absolutely would [withdraw my comments] because all I want is this project done.”
After the unanimous vote at the meeting, Mr Ward blasted councillors for choosing to “obfuscate and ask the council to investigate itself”.
“I have never suggested inappropriate or illegal conduct on the part of the council's hard working staff and officers,” he said.
“Tonight's meeting, five minutes before an election, was all about the desperation of political candidates seeking election and not getting the job done.
“I look forward to ICAC concluding its investigations in relation to this matter.”