Conflict case exposes council dysfunction


THE Graham Pittock conflict of interest case, now concluded, has pulled the focus squarely on to the deep dysfunction afflicting Mornington Peninsula Shire Council over the Southern Peninsula Aquatic Centre.

The case began with a 2012 allegation of conflict of interest – anonymous, as is allowed, to the secretive Local Government Investigation and Compliance Inspectorate – and ended last Friday with a fine and costs order. Almost a modern-day “Jarndyce and Jarndyce”, for those who read Dickens.

For more than two years Cr Pittock was prevented from voting on the financially huge and physically expanding SPA, such is the cracking bureaucratic haste with which the inspectorate, a noted guardian of democracy and practitioner of legal efficiency, got its case ready for court.

And Cr Pittock cannot vote on the SPA so long as he owns his Tonic squash and gym facility in Dromana. Almost certainly this was the aim of the anonymous complainant – to stop an anti-foreshore councillor from voting by alleging conflict of interest, to ensure the pool is built beside Rosebud beach.

The magistrate found what seemed to some observers a thin, speculative case – according to the inspectorate, a test case – against Cr Pittock. He was found guilty and fined, but it is a hollow victory for the low life who made the complaint. It is a document littered, it has been stated, with colourful language of a sort found only in the mouths of people whose vocabulary runs to 200 words or less.

The SPA dysfunction continues and, impossible though this seems, it gets worse. But soon it will get better – the Red Hill ward byelection brought to council another anti-foreshore if not anti-pool councillor whose vote changes the foreshore numbers from 6-5- to 5-6. And pro-foreshore mayor Antonella Celi, with her casting vote, hands back the gold chain in November and with it her crucial extra vote for the foreshore.

The death throes of the pro-foreshore councillor group have become a wonder to behold. Witness the council meeting held on 8 September. And there’s more to come.

Cr Hugh Fraser that night brought to the chamber a motion to halt work on the SPA at the foreshore site. SPA champion Cr David Gibb was on holidays, which infuriated his supporters, who accused their opponents of denying him, the most fervid pro-foreshore advocate, the opportunity to take part in the debate.

Councillors David Garnock and Andrew Dixon launched blistering attacks on Cr Fraser, using language that drew occasional mild remonstrances from Cr Celi, who was chairing the meeting. Cr Dixon lamented the absence of Cr Gibb: the SPA is “close to his heart,” he mourned, to be reminded tartly by Cr Fraser that the debate would not be taking place had Cr Dixon honoured his election pledge to put the SPA on hold.

The pro-Gibb, pro-foreshore councillors seem not to have noticed – or don’t wish to know – that they are now the council minority faction on the SPA. Their indignation and impotent fury at finding themselves outvoted on an issue that until last month they controlled was bizarre, tragic, spectacular at the reality that he SPA was suddenly no longer “theirs”.

And its preferred foreshore site was being pronounced dead.

The obdurate folly of insisting that the SPA pool/gym/community hall be on the foreshore was being destroyed by a relentless presentation of facts. The state government had finally said No, via its new Victorian Coastal Strategy 2014, to the foreshore accommodating non-coastal dependent uses.

Yet there on the shire website are the four SPA designs, drawn to a shire brief that included a gym and a replacement community hall – on the foreshore. Did the shire not know about the requirement that community halls were “to be relocated as the opportunity arises” (page 65 of the strategy)? Why then was the replacement for the Rosebud Memorial Hall included in the 2013 design brief? After all, the shire owns a most suitable site for a hall nearby in Wannaeue Place.

And why on earth was a gym included? There’s not much coastal-dependent about a gym. Cr Pittock must have smiled wryly at this piece of shire effrontery.

As to Cr Gibb’s absence on 8 September, we heard no Garnock or Dixon fulminations about “unfairness” related to Cr Pittock’s plight. Nor related to the inhabitants of Red Hill ward, unrepresented for three-quarters of a year.

But here was Hugh Fraser, being accused of deceit, of trashing democracy, of unfairness, by councillors radiating some spurious “right” to dictate who must be at meetings such as this. They were effectively saying that meetings should only be held when they had the numbers. Here they were, whingeing about “their” man being cruelly cheated of his right to be present. What self-righteous, self-serving blind balderdash.

Here, publicly, the dummy was being spat, the toys were being hurled out of the pram, in a giant, petulant sulk that on occasion was barely controlled by a strong-arm chair who threatened to adjourn the meeting and to throw the book at the restive gallery. At one point Cr Celi “named” an over-enthusiastic member of the gallery – who responded “Thank you very much. I appreciate it”, to roars of approval.

Thank goodness for council meeting recordings. As the council bedlam proceeded this correspondent and his partner were in Brisbane, delighting in two beautiful young granddaughters, and conversing quietly and civilly with three sons and an enchanting daughter-in-law. What a contrast to the recording.

The 8 September meeting was an opportunity for the pro-foreshore group to show grace, to recognise that it was no longer in control, to demonstrate maturity, to acknowledge the start of a new epoch and to calculate its members place in it. In a few months this shire may have a new chief executive officer, working with a new mayor. Change is here. Everyone, please calm down.

Postscript: Cr Pittock has never voted against the SPA. He has only ever voted against the foreshore site. But, as a magistrate observed in an earlier conflict case, conflict went “to the heart of the integrity of local government”. The courts are on the look-out. Would-be councillors everywhere, beware.


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