The entire Ipswich City Council, west of Brisbane, will be sacked and administrators appointed, Local Government Minister Stirling Hinchliffe has announced.
The announcement came hours after Mayor Andrew Antoniolli said he was standing down, a day after he was charged with fraud by Queensland’s Crime and Corruption Commission (CCC).
The ALP has also confirmed Cr Antoniolli quit the party after being issued with a show-cause notice about his membership on Wednesday night.
He is facing seven counts of fraud for allegedly using council money to purchase auction items from charitable organisations over the past six years.
“Following statements from Local Government Minister Stirling Hinchliffe and LGAQ president Greg Hallam late yesterday afternoon, Cr Antoniolli has decided to stand down from his duties as Mayor of Ipswich until such time as court matters are resolved,” a statement from Ipswich City Council said.
Mr Hinchliffe told state Parliament he would try to change the laws in the next sitting week so the council can be sacked outright.
“Today [Thursday], I will ask Ipswich City Council to show cause why they should not be dismissed,” he said.
“Next week I will be asking Cabinet to consider strengthening the legislative powers of the Local Government Minister to dismiss councils, when they have lost the trust of their community.
“When an entire community loses faith in its elected leaders – as is the case in Ipswich – it’s time to act.
“The situation in Ipswich we see today is of the gravest concern … 12 people, including two mayors, are facing a total of 66 charges.”
In a statement, acting Ipswich Mayor Wayne Wendt said the council would file a submission with the state government to demonstrate why administrators should not be appointed.
“Over the past 12 months, this council has introduced more than 20 policies and procedures which have led to a platform of accountable and transparent governance,” he said.
“While we acknowledge that the CCC has laid multiple charges against people who have worked for this council, it must be stressed that nobody has yet been found guilty of anything.
“It is our understanding that many of the charges relate to paperwork and record-keeping and many of those allegations are in relation to money given to charity.
“We must be very careful – for the sake of democracy – that representation of the people is not taken away as a measure to justify the expense of a very long investigation.”
But earlier, Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said the people of Ipswich had lost confidence in the council.
“There are too many charges levelled against too many officials for anyone to have confidence in the management of Ipswich City Council,” Ms Palaszczuk said.
“Enough is enough, this will stop. I am stopping it. The people of Ipswich deserve better.”
Ms Palaszczuk said the law changes the Local Government Minister was seeking would also be able to be applied to other troubled councils.
When earlier asked about moves to dissolve council, Cr Antoniolli responded, “You’re kidding me”. He declined to comment further.
State Labor MP Jo-Ann Miller, who represents the Ipswich-based seat of Bundamba, said it was a great day for the “long suffering” people of Ipswich who had put up with far too much.
“The embarrassment ends and our community can build and grow on the many positive things that occur in Ipswich each and every day,” Ms Miller said.
Opposition leader Deb Frecklington called on the Premier to explain why she did not act earlier after repeated warnings about the council.
“The Labor Member for Bundamba and former Labor Member for Cairns both raised the alarm about Ipswich City Council, but the Premier ignored and shunned them,” Ms Frecklington said.
“We haven’t seen a crisis like this in Queensland since the Fitzgerald Inquiry.
“The reputation of Ipswich is being dragged through the mud – thanks to Labor.”
Local government sackings ‘rare’
Mr Hallam said it was “quite rare” for a Queensland council to be sacked.
“It’s … just over 11 years since the Johnstone Shire was sacked in 2007.
“We understand the government’s justification for taking this action – we regret it, but we understand why the government have done what it’s done.
“But let’s be very clear, this is a start of a process to sack a council. They’ll get their day in court. They’ll get to say what they think.”
Veteran councillor Paul Tully shocked
Former deputy mayor Paul Tully heard the news via text message while attending a conference in Perth.
“It was a bolt out of the blue,” he said.
“It is a poor way personally for me to end a 39-year career in local government.
“More than half my life devoted to local government, for it to come to an end so suddenly is quite unusual.
“[You] do not expect to lose your career at a stroke of a pen by the minister.”
Cr Tully said the ratepayers of Ipswich would be worse off under an administrator.
“It is not possible for one bureaucrat to replace 10 elected councillors.”
He said perceptions the current council was “dirty” or “tainted” were wrong, and he questioned why the government did not move to sack Logan Council after its mayor was charged.
Cr Antoniolli said the decision to stand down was in the best interests of the city and his family.
He is the second Ipswich mayor to be charged by the CCC, with Paul Pisasale still to face court on charges of corruption, extortion, fraud, perjury and attempting to pervert the course of justice.
The alleged offences are not believed to be related.
After Mr Pisasale resigned as mayor, Cr Antoniolli took over the job in August, declaring he had a 19-point plan to ensure transparency and good governance.