IT seems a straightforward question - how much public money has City of Newcastle spent on its new administration building at Stewart Avenue?
But the answer remains one of the council's best-kept secrets. For two years, ratepayers have been in the dark about exactly how much public money council would spend on its new leased administration building in Newcastle West.
The wall of secrecy around the headquarters has seen council repeatedly reject freedom of information requests, refuse to answer media questions and deny elected councillors detail about the spend.
Council has resisted requests from the Newcastle Herald to make public detailed information about the building cost, arguing it would compromise everything from commercial-in-confidence provisions to the mental health of people working on the project.
Since February, six requests have been lodged under freedom of information laws, in an attempt to uncover costs and to access the business case used to justify the move, with limited success.
Only one of six GIPA requests lodged in the past eight months has resulted in council producing information that wasn't already publicly available.
Four applications - including seeking the business case that council has selectively quoted from to justify the move - were denied, one resulted in partial release of information and another saw council release a brief tender summary that was already on its website indicating Graphite Projects had been awarded a $9 million fit-out contract.
In July, Information and Privacy Commission (IPC) senior regulatory officer Kevin Cheng raised with council concerns about the lack of information publicly available about the project.
"As the fit-out contract has a value of more than $5 million ... the agency's contracts register must include a copy of the contract," he said.
"Further, it does not appear the agency has provided in its contracts register any reason as to why the contract had not been included in the register, or any statement as to whether it intended that the contract will be included in the register at a later date."
It is still not available and council declined to answer a question about the issue this week.
Questions about the cost of the move from elected councillors have also been stonewalled.
Independent councillors John Church, Kath Elliott, Andrea Rufo and Allan Robinson have twice lodged a notice of motion seeking detail on the new headquarters spend, but the answers have not been forthcoming.
Cr Church said both attempts were "rejected" by council chief executive Jeremy Bath, and never made it into the council's business papers.
Mr Bath has previously said making public the details of a confidential financial agreement with a third party was "unlawful".
Six weeks ago, Cr Church also lodged a councillor request for information on the same issue. No joy there either.
"Councillors were told by management in 2017 that the fit-out would cost not a penny more than $7 million," he said.
"Our fear is that there have been large cost blow outs and indulgent over spending on the project and that the residents of Newcastle have a right to know how their rates are being spent."
The refusals have sparked heated debate and accusations the council has something to hide. At the same time, Mr Bath has described the move as a "stunning success" that will help foster "far greater collaboration and far greater communication".
He said council would reap $22 million in interest from the sale of the Roundhouse.
The Newcastle Herald understands the documents denied under freedom of information hide a total bill of more than $17 million.
A council spokesman said on Thursday, in response to more questions about the cost, that the last of four projects at Stewart Avenue was completed earlier this week.
"As such City of Newcastle is currently finalising the total costs which should be known within days," he said.
"These costs will include fitout, design and project management as well as all payments to Graphite Projects and APP for each of the four projects at 12 Stewart Avenue as previously communicated to the Newcastle Herald. The cost associated with the delivery of the Local Emergency Operations Centre, the council chamber and the digital library ... will also be available to the Herald."
At a Newcastle Business Club function last month, property developer Jeff McCloy, who resigned as lord mayor in 2014 after a state corruption probe into donations he made to election campaigns in 2011, took aim at the project when asked a question about his time at council.
"What I didn't do was sell a building for $17 million, spend $20 million on the fit-out of another building and then pay $2.5 million a year for 15 years in rent," Mr McCloy said.
"That's got to be the most dumb arse decision I've ever seen."
What we do know is that after months of pressure and following a direct request from Lord Mayor Nuatali Nelmes to developer Spartohori to lift a confidentiality clause on the lease, it was revealed in December that council will spend at least $35 million in rent over the next 15 years.
Councillors approved the shift to Newcastle West in 2017 based on a business case by real estate services firm CBRE that showed it would benefit ratepayers by $13.1 million over 25 years and the fit-out would cost $7 million.
But council has refused to make the report public and last month rejected a freedom of information request by the Herald to access it.
In deciding to keep the report secret, council used a range of reasons including that because the report was labelled confidential, CBRE was able to "frankly disclose" aspects of the business case which "included incomplete assessments".
Council also claimed releasing the report could expose it to "potential litigation" from CBRE. An appeal of council's decision was lodged with the IPC. An outcome is pending.
After council approved a number of improvements to the building, including a new council chamber believed to be worth $1 million, the spend has grown considerably since Mr Bath said in 2017 that the "one-off" cost would be $7 million.
It remains unclear how much it has grown.
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A quantity surveyor's report completed by Muller Partnership for council in October 2018 revealed the move could cost ratepayers more than $16 million, a figure close to the $16.5 million received for the sale of council's former administrative headquarters, the "Roundhouse", last year.
But City of Newcastle told the Newcastle Herald in October last year that the report was "outdated" and "included unnecessary costs".
At the same time as council refused to disclose how much was being spent, its spokesman said the report had been "updated several times since to arrive at an accurate number".
In its responses to GIPA applications, council's legal officers have doggedly insisted release of information about the building could lead to a host of problems, including legal action, severe mental health problems for people working on the job, refusal by consultants to deal with council and difficulty for contractors linked to the project to secure work in Newcastle.
In August, the Herald requested the total value of the contract being managed by project management firm APP Corporation, the company overseeing the project on behalf of council, and its monthly reports for May, June and July.
According to council, releasing the monthly reports could cause professional reputational damage to APP and fit-out contractor Graphite Projects.
"This is because the monthly reports contain details of a number of confidential matters, including the project progress against the project program, summaries of delays and other information which could bear upon the reputation of APP and Graphite," council's legal officer wrote.
"The public disclosure of such information could compromise the likelihood that APP and the Graphite be engaged on future projects."
There was also concern that media access to the monthly reports could expose people working on the job to risk of "harm" and "intimidation".
Council said APP feared disclosure of its reports could impact the "psychological wellbeing" of its staff and Graphite was concerned negative coverage could expose staff to "harm" or "harassment".
"I agree with APP and Graphite as to why they consider a risk of harm would be reasonably expectable," council's legal officer said.
"I believe the severity of that harm that could occur to psychological wellbeing is difficult to quantify as it is based on each individual's personal circumstances, and could range from very minor to severe."
There were also concerns that the reports might reveal that advice given to council was not accepted and this could impact people's "psychological wellbeing".
It was further suggested that staff could be harassed if a negative story was written.
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