Decades of decisions being checked

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MORNINGTON Peninsula Shire officers are “reviewing decisions” made over the past seven years involving three companies at the centre of investigations by the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission (IBAC).

However, the review involving hundreds of files will be extended back decades, if necessary, according to the mayor Cr Sam Hearn.

“We want to look at everything, not just back to an arbitrary date,” he said.

“Three decades is quite a lot to look into and we want enough external involvement so it doesn’t just appear to be council looking at itself.”

Cr Hearn said council “intends to make [the review findings] public” but could be asked to withhold information by IBAC or the police.

The review by shire officers of any council decisions made involving Mornington-based Watsons Pty Ltd, Schutz Consulting Pty Ltd and Wolfdene Built Pty Ltd announced in December followed three weeks of hearings by IBAC which revealed hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations being made to local councillors, MPs (Labor and Liberal) and political parties; bags of cash delivered to one councillor by a former mayor and state MP; and, the promise of a $100 million prize hanging on a minister’s stroke of a pen to allow rezoning of land.

Watsons director John Woodman unsuccessfully stood for Mornington Peninsula Shire’s Briars Ward in 2012 and 2016. In the 2016 council election, Watsons donated $2489 to Briars Ward candidate, now councillor, Rosemary Clark. Cr Clark was incorrectly named by The News as deputy mayor in the 24/12/19 article “Shire probe into permits”.

Cr David Gill said on Monday he would “make sure the review of permits goes way back … the results should be made public”.

“If [the results of the shire’s investigations] go to IBAC they will be public, but I don’t want to compromise the IBAC inquiry,” he said.

“How do you ever get to the bottom of these things where politicians and councillors are involved?

Cr Gill said the review was “a great opportunity for all councillors to see if anything should be investigated”.

“I’ve been concerned for a long time about the involvement of politicians, and planning ministers in particular [in making planning decisions]. It often comes down to a decision by one person, and who knows who’s been making donations to political parties?

“One member of VCAT (Victorian Civic and Administrative Tribunal) makes a decision and who questions it? That’s just the way it works.

“We now need to show people that you don’t always get away with it.”

The review will also look at councillors’ voting patterns and possible involvement of past shire officers

Shire CEO John Baker said that due to “the extended time period” it would take “take a number of weeks before the review is complete”.

Engineers, planners and developers associated with the most prominent of three companies, Mornington-based Watsons Pty Ltd, have for decades been involved in hundreds of developments on the peninsula.

IBAC has been sent information about the $650 million (a 2002 estimate by one-time developer City Pacific) Martha Cove marina and residential development at Safety Beach, which underwent several major planning changes well outside a seven-year review.

Mr Baker said councillors would be given a brief report on the approach [to the review] “seeking support for a transparent and open process to be undertaken by management”.

“Council may not be in a position to lawfully disclose the outcome of any review,” he said.

Mr Baker said he was not aware if any shire officers had been contacted by IBAC or whether any would be called to testify at the IBAC hearings which re-start in February.

First published in the Southern Peninsula News – 15 January 2020

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