UNDER PRESSURE: Supporters of the current pool management will rally outside of the Coffs Harbour City Council chambers on Thursday afternoon.
UNDER PRESSURE: Supporters of the current pool management will rally outside of the Coffs Harbour City Council chambers on Thursday afternoon. Trevor Veale

Acting GM on pool lease: 'process and its result is right'

AHEAD of this afternoon's protest against awarding the tender to manage the Coffs Harbour, Woolgoolga and Sawtell town pools to out-of-town business, Lane 4 Aquatics, Coffs Harbour City Council acting general manger Mick Raby wrote an open letter.

At 4.30pm it is planned supporters of the current pool management will meet at the council chambers.

In Mr Raby's letter, he wrote he had received many emotive emails and letters about the decision to issue the new leases to the three pools to Lane 4 Aquatics.

Mr Raby's letter reads:

"Thank you for your emails and letters regarding the decision to issue new leases Coffs, Woolgoolga and Sawtell pools to Lane 4.

I understand that this current pool leasing issue is highly emotive for many people as a result of their past or present use of the facilities and their contact and experiences with the current lessees which have, in the main, been very positive. This situation has naturally led to a range of arguments from those affected being put against the veracity of the recent decision to hand the leases to a new provider.

The arguments against this outcome themselves are put in a number of different ways but all have similar common threads. In the interests of transparency and to ensure all parties have the facts I am taking the unusual step of posting a comment on Facebook.

The key premise of those arguments, and it continues to be thus, is that Lane 4 is simply incapable, under any circumstances, of providing the same or better level of service, engagement or support of the Coffs community as that which the current lessees have previously provided, and further, that Council staff in their assessment of the Tender Responses have somehow simply missed that obvious fact.

Based on that same premise then the following conclusions are often reached by those making the argument: the tendering and/or assessment process must have been faulty, or rorted; the right questions were not asked; the bids of the current lessees were misunderstood or misinterpreted either wilfully or because the staff involved are inexperienced in such matters; the wrong numbers were crunched; the current lessees are commercial operators but they don't act commercially and Lane 4 will; the current operators seek to improve the facilities and services but Lane 4 won't. In short there must have been some gross error in either the assessment process or the conclusions drawn from it.

Having a direct knowledge of all aspects of this issue I cannot support either the flawed key premise or the faulty conclusions that have been drawn by many people as a result of relying on it.

As a guide to the depth of the actual analysis which was undertaken by staff to arrive at the conclusion to issue the new leases to Lane 4 a significant amount of information and detail was requested, provided by all respondents, and equally assessed and evaluated by the independent assessment team (by independent I mean they have no real or perceived conflict of interest, no skin in the game, nothing to gain or lose, no favourites, no mates, and they are prepared to call it as they see it without fear or favour - and they are required to document and legally declare to those facts before they take up their role on the assessment panel).

For the record, the dimensions covered in the actual assessment of all potential lessees which was undertaken, comprised the following and were assessed individually and then jointly by each member of the assessment panel:

1. Business Plans

In line with Council's strategic directions & objectives; Community & Customer needs; Consistent with Policies Procedures & systems; Swimming Centre operating budget including attendance; Fees and Charges; Programs and services; Specific Swimming Centre marketing campaigns; Annual Maintenance Schedule; User group plans and allocations and Future Business Plan.

2. Transition Plan

Overall timeframes and steps for transition plan (ie. gantt chart); Recruitment timelines;

Development of necessary policies, systems and procedures; Timelines for fitouts and/or sub-leases (eg. kiosks); Procurement of all necessary equipment at each Swimming Centre and

ability to honour all existing bookings at the swimming complexes.

3. Capability & Capacity

Commercial Ventures of a similar nature and Provision of 3 previous contracts / projects in the last 10 years.

4. Experience and Past Performance

Resume for Key Personnel nominated; Qualifications of Key Personnel and references of Key Personnel.

5. Quality Assurance & Work Health & Safety Systems & Procedures

All required policies are attached.

A criteria that many of your comments suggest we were missing was one in favour of local business. Unfortunately, the State Government's legislation on local government tendering - which all local councils in NSW have to follow - does not allow us to include that as a criteria. That may be viewed as a flaw in the system, but it is nevertheless the current system.

The tender process, the assessment process, the analysis of all provided facts, and the conclusions drawn from that work are correct. Myself and my team have concluded as we are required under law to do, that based on the factual evidence and commitments provided by all respondents to the Tender, and supported by the lengthy and detailed analysis of those responses, and the reference checks we have undertaken, that Lane 4 is indeed capable of all that which has been requested and more. I know there has been several attempts to publically diminish the professional standing of that company - one such effort relied on a 2007 letter by Mr David Milburn regarding Lane 4's Rockhampton lease - we took the opportunity to ring Mr Milburn today who informed us, having used their services for many years now, that Lane 4 was an excellent pool management company and he could not recommend them highly enough.

The conclusion to issue the leases to Lane 4 is not intended to diminish the standing of the current lessees. They have all factually provided a great level of service to many of you during their tenure which, especially in Woolgoolga's case, has been extensive. Many people have raised that point and I accept it unreservedly. The tender responses, in the main, supported that view and very clearly indicated that all of the respondents, including the current lessees, were indeed capable of providing a very high level of service and management expertise with a due focus on the highly important community engagement aspects. It was indeed a close contest, but close only in regard to those qualitative aspects of the service.

The principal and deciding objective difference amongst the offers was the price that the Coffs community would have to pay to access that expertise and level of service into the future. The differences between Lane 4's price and the next best offer was not insignificant - over the first 10-year lease period for the Coffs Harbour facility, and the five year periods of the Sawtell and Woolgoolga leases it amounted to $1.9m of ratepayers money. Extrapolated out over the potential 20-year lease period for Coffs Harbour Pool and out to 10 years for the other two facilities the saving more than doubled, even when the various capital investments that some respondents additionally offered are taken into account.

In summary, the process and its result is right, correct, proper, and maximises the future benefits to the whole Coffs community over all other options. To be honest, even if I thought it somehow reasonable to expend a swath more ratepayer cash than is otherwise necessary, for the sole and only purpose of keeping a great incumbent lessee in place - which I categorically do not believe would be a fair result to the City's ratepayers on whose behalf I work, such a decision would not come close to meeting the intent of the State Government's tendering guidelines. Try as I might I am unable, even theoretically, to design an alternative open, fair, transparent and reasonable process which would meet the ICAC Tendering Guidelines, and which would give such a result.

Again, I appreciate everything people have said. I understand the depth of your longstanding relationships with the current lessees and I respect your defence of the services they have provided. They have been great pool managers.

I hope that goes some way to assisting your understanding of the issues faced by the GM and the staff who have managed this very difficult process - and the situation the Councillors have been dealing with. The staff have, to my mind, acted in the best traditions of genuinely independent local government agents and in the best interests of the whole Coffs community. I would be saddened if anyone was to think we would ever act otherwise.

Mick Raby

Acting General Manager

Coffs Harbour City Council"

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