Former Wagga City councillor Paul Funnell is offering no apologies after being slapped with a two-year ban from holding public office by the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal (NCAT).
“I have no regret whatsoever,” Mr Funnell declared as he fronted the media on a cold and foggy morning outside the city’s council chambers.
“That’s why I say this is actually a subversion of our political and democratic and legal process.”
Mr Funnell was found guilty of misconduct after it was alleged that he had threatened Wagga City Council’s general manager and councillors who were preparing to deliberate on a code of conduct complaint in 2020.
“I chose not to contest the matter. I know it says ‘the facts are proven’, well, that’s of course because the matter was not contested,” he said, adding that he had agreed to settle the matter to avoid “malicious prosecution”.
“I would not be responsible and conduct malfeasance, as this organisation and the office of local government have done, in the ongoing waste of ratepayers’ and taxpayers’ money,” he said, taking aim at general manager Peter Thompson’s complaint.
“It took him nine months. He couldn’t have felt too intimidated and he met with me multiple times. He spoke to me the following morning.
“He chose to go down the path of malicious prosecution to subvert the democratic process.”
The allegations date back to 14 September, 2020, when, after the original code of conduct deliberation was deferred, Mr Funnell left a voice message on Mr Thompson’s phone warning him to “get ready for legal action” and concluding: “I think you better just dismiss this whole situation.”
At the following meeting on 28 September, Mr Funnell read a statement from his legal counsel stating that if “the current matter proceeds beyond this notification the appropriate legal action will be entered into against each individual Councillor – Councillor that is – who participates”.
Mr Funnell and three councillors subsequently left the chamber, meaning that the council did not have the numbers to continue.
He denied the suggestion that he had orchestrated the walk-out to avoid investigation.
On Friday, NCAT principal member Theresa Simon found that misconduct had been proven, stating that Mr Funnell’s warnings that he would take legal action if the complaint process continued were “intended to dissuade councillors from considering the code of conduct report”.
“The conduct of Mr Funnell was serious, in that he did attempt to impede and disrupt consideration of a code of conduct report made against him,” Ms Simon said.
“Consideration of such reports is important to ensure the highest standards of councillors and such consideration should not be impeded.”
Mr Funnell rejected the claim that his intention was to threaten his fellow councillors.
“It’s actually a moral obligation under civil law to actually notify someone if their actions could potentially result in legal action,” he said.
“You see it every meeting where a developer may say, ‘If I don’t get the outcome that I want, I am going to go to the Land Environment Court and proceed with legal action’. Well, what is the difference?”
Wagga’s longest-serving councillor and former mayor Rod Kendall attended the morning media call to “look Paul in the eye and to hear what he had to say”.
He said Mr Funnell’s perspective on the outcome was “interesting” and described him as having “a very toxic effect on any organisation that he’s a part of”.
“What we’ve heard from Paul today, of course, is that claim that as the perpetrator, he’s the one that’s now been wronged in this process,” Cr Kendall said.
“I think you all realise that’s entirely wrong. Paul is guilty. He’s guilty by agreement. He agreed to the charges. He agreed to the facts. He was found guilty.”
Cr Kendall said that he, his fellow councillors and council staff had all felt threatened by Mr Funnell and his “my way or not at all” approach.
“This particular term of council has been an extremely productive term with very, very good relationships between everybody,” he said.
“That doesn’t mean we agree with each other…but with absolute respect for each other’s opinion.
“That’s what you don’t see with Paul Funnell.”
With Mr Funnell now unable to stand for council next year, the ban will effectively keep him out of local politics until 2028, but he said he had no intention to return to public life due to poor health.
His plan for the future is to continue to keep an eye on Wagga’s local government from a distance and to advocate for “transparency and accountability”.
”The waste and mismanagement in this organisation is sickening,” he said
“I’ll just watch occasionally and if there’s an opportunity, I may write columns. I may write letters to the editor, I may make public comment.
“Who knows, I may do nothing.”
You can read the NCAT ruling here.