QUEANBEYAN City Council is now seeking legal advice on its legal advice following an extraordinary meeting of Council on Wednesday night aimed at writing-off $3.7 million in backdated rates charges issued to Queanbeyan ratepayers in July.
However Councillors say affected ratepayers can still hold out hope that the invoices will be quashed following this week's move to call in a Special Counsel (SC) to review two conflicting sets of legal advice and verify whether the rates notices were correctly issued.
A group of councillors called the extraordinary meeting of Council for Wednesday night after new legal advice, commissioned by Cr Jamie Cregan from local firm Boettcher Law, suggested the procedure used to issue the invoices for backdated water, sewer and waste access charges- some of which stretch into the tens of thousands of dollars- was invalid under the Local Government Act.
While Boettcher Law concedes its advice is preliminary and based upon Council's initial legal explanation of its process, it would allow the invoices to be written off completely by a simple resolution of Council if upheld.
However acting general manager Kerry McMurray threw a spanner in the works on Wednesday night when he said the rates invoices were issued using section 546.3 of the Act, a fact at odds with the process expressed in Council's original legal justification for the invoices, provided by law firm Bradley Allan Love. Mr McMurray has now referred both sets of legal advice to an SC for review, which is due back next week.
"The SC has been requested to review both sets of legal advice regarding the supplementary rates notices issued by Queanbeyan City Council," a Council spokesperson said.
"Council's Acting General Manager has also requested the SC review the Local Government Act to determine if any other courses of action are possible."
Cr Cregan then moved that his motion to write-off the invoices be deferred to await advice from the SC.
"As much as I would like to move the [original] motion, I think some of the advice was relying on the statements in the Bradley Allen Love advice that Section 131A be used to write off an amount and charge it," he said. "I think we're probably best to seek further clarification unfortunately."
Cr Brian Brown apologised to the 30-odd affected ratepayers who attended the meeting, but said the meeting had provided new hope with news the Department of Local Government had verified that a resolution to write-off the rates would be legal if based on accurate legal advice.
"I think there's some comfort in the fact that the Department and the general manager see nothing illegal about it [the motion]," Cr Brown said. "I think things are looking a little more positive than they were yesterday."
However vice president of the Queanbeyan Ratepayers' Association, Lisa Robinson, said she was concerned a solution was still not forthcoming, given that Boettcher Law's advice cautioned that if not successfully challenged within three months (or by November 1), the invoices would be deemed valid under the Act.
"I really think this is just a smokescreen. Every time we go in there, they put a show on to say 'we're doing everything we can', but there's a whole lot of stalling," she said. "And these things take so much time. That's what's so frightening about it."
Boettcher Law's Rory Markham welcomed the review from an SC, but said the Council now needed to re-explain its process in issuing the invoices.
"I think it was fair to say we had expressed a preliminary view, however we stand by that view, and we think it's incumbent on Council to actually clarify how it legally got to the position that it did," he said.
"One would hope that Senior Counsel would express a view that is open on both sides, but this is a very difficult, technical part of law."
Meanwhile, Mayor Tim Overall and a delegation of Councillors will meet with NSW Local Government Minister Paul Toole on Friday and seek a possible legislative solution to the matter.