THE long-running saga engulfing Newcastle Art Gallery has claimed its first two scalps, with Newcastle council sacking two senior directors late on Monday.
After a three-month examination by a council-appointed investigator, council general manager Ken Gouldthorp confirmed that the positions of art gallery director Ron Ramsey and the council’s ‘‘future city’’ director, Judy Jaeger, had been terminated.
Mr Gouldthorp would not elaborate on the exact findings of the investigation or what the pair had allegedly done. But he said the investigation had raised ‘‘questions and allegations’’ about the pair’s actions and ‘‘the two individuals were given multiple opportunities to respond’’.
He indicated that Mr Ramsey and Ms Jaeger were given a copy of the investigator’s report and asked to show why they shouldn’t be sacked.
A statement issued by Ms Jaeger, however, was at odds with Mr Gouldthorp. Ms Jaeger said she had fully co-operated with the investigation but was unable to access relevant information because she had been gagged by the council and locked out of her office for the duration of the 15-week investigation.
‘‘I vehemently refute any suggestion that I have acted in breach of any fiduciary or other duties in my role as director,’’ she said.
Mr Gouldthorp refuted the claims that Ms Jaeger did not have an opportunity to respond to allegations, saying ‘‘the duration of the investigation and the appointment of a highly reputable independent investigator, as requested by Ms Jaeger at the outset, speaks for itself’’.
The sacking relates to the controversial acquisition by the gallery of Brett Whiteley’s sculpture Black Totem II.
The sculpture was given to the gallery by Whiteley’s wife Wendy in September, but the council suspended the two directors on full pay after it alleged that the sculpture was not donated as the Newcastle Art Gallery Foundation had claimed, but was part of a deal that required the foundation to donate $350,000 to the Brett Whiteley Foundation in Sydney.
On its own legal advice, the council alleged that the deal put it in breach of tax and charity laws and could lead to the council being stripped of its tax-deductible gift-recipient status.
Emails leaked to the Newcastle Herald last month show that a $100,000 payment was made to the Brett Whiteley Foundation. The council alleges it was the first instalment of the $350,000 deal, but the foundation insists it was simply a $100,000 donation from a private donor expressing appreciation for Whiteley’s gift to the city.
It is not known what Mr Ramsey or Ms Jaeger knew of the deal, but it is known that it and their sackings are linked.
Ms Jaeger said yesterday she had ‘‘always acted with integrity and transparency’’ and was not privy to the financial arrangements of the foundation because it is a private body of gallery supporters that acts independently of the council.
Mr Ramsey would not comment on his termination last night. He is said to be weighing up his options, with associates saying he will likely file a case for unfair dismissal in the Industrial Relations Commission.
The news sparked a flurry of protest from gallery supporters and colleagues of Mr Ramsey and Ms Jaeger.
However, lord mayor Jeff McCloy and Liberal councillor Brad Luke both backed the general manager’s decision.
‘‘I don’t know all the details around this, but PricewaterhouseCoopers are highly respected, independent people who made a report for the council and I support them and the general manager,’’ Cr McCloy said.
Former lord mayor John Tate said the sackings were part of a vendetta against the gallery.
Greens councillor Michael Osborne said the council’s handling of the matter had been ‘‘appalling’’, while Labor councillor Nuatali Nelmes said she feared the saga would cost ratepayers even more money.
The Art Gallery Foundation is understood to have met with its own lawyers late yesterday. But its chairman, Robert Henderson, said the foundation wanted to make no public comment on the sackings until it had first responded to the council over its moves this morning.
Newcastle lord mayor Jeff McCloy
‘‘The general manager has made a decision and he has my full support. There are some councillors who seem to be arguing that we should have swept this under the table, but we have a responsibility to act ethically and properly. I don’t know all the details around this, but Price Waterhouse Coopers are highly respected, independent people who made a report for the council and I support them and the general manager.’’
Liberal councillor Brad Luke
‘‘The important thing here is that the general manager has followed the correct process. The only alternative (to his actions) would be to sweep it under the carpet and not give the employees access to due process. That takes time. I have no problem with the general manager not telling me (details of what the investigation found) because councillors aren’t supposed to know.’’
Greens councillor Michael Osborne:
‘‘I think this has been very poorly handled. Information has been withheld from councillors – we still don’t know the reason for their dismissal and we have no idea what the council’s investigation concluded. I think the ratepayers will be appalled at the way this has gone on, and I fear that there is a very strong possibility that this matter is going to end up in court and cost a lot of money.’’
Labor councillor Nuatali Nelmes
‘‘At this point, we don’t have a gallery redevelopment going ahead, we’ve embarked on costly legal action with the gallery foundation and it now appears that we could be potentially looking down the barrel of more costly legal action following these dismissals. At the end of the day, the art community and ratepayers are the losers. It’s disappointing that councillors still don’t know the outcome of the investigation. As we don’t seem capable of managing the gallery, it should be taken out of our hands and given to the Art Gallery of NSW.’’
Former Newcastle lord mayor John Tate
‘‘There is no doubt in my mind that there has been a vendetta against the art gallery by the council. It started with this council’s failure to support the gallery’s expansion plans, and then it moved onto the staff and now it’s moved on to the gallery foundation.’’