Permit probe goes further than IBAC

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MORNINGTON Peninsula Shire councillors are being told that it is “prudent, diligent and in the public interest” to make sure the shire has not made corrupt planning decisions similar to ones alleged at the City of Casey.

The advice is contained in a report seeking council’s support for a review announced by shire CEO John Baker last December of decisions made on planning requests from developer John Woodman and his Mornington-based company Watsons Pty Ltd as well as associated companies Wolfdene Built Pty Ltd and Schutz Consulting Pty Ltd.

Several employees of two of these companies have previously worked for the shire and the state government.

Councillors will be asked to support Mr Baker’s “transparent and open process to be undertaken by management”.

Mr Baker says the review – to be overseen by an “independent probity adviser” – will involve “decisions made for these companies over the past two terms of council (effectively seven years)”.

The report prepared by the shire’s governance and legal head Amanda Sapolu – and approved by Mr Baker – concedes “council could resolve to consider earlier time periods”.

The mayor Cr Sam Hearn and former mayor Cr David Gill have said there must be no limit on how far back the inquiry goes (“Decades of decisions being checked” The News 15/1/20).

Mr Baker says his inquiry will go beyond that outlined by IBAC in its Casey-based Operation Sandon, which included looking for corruption at state and local government elections and “public officers involved in planning and property development decision-making”.

In addition to IBAC’s stated aims, Mr Baker says the shire’s investigation will look at decisions made by officers without councillor involvement under delegated authority.

It will review declared conflicts of interest by councillors and officers as well as “ascertain any gifts or benefits provided by the relevant companies to councillors or officers”, including electoral donations.

In the November 2016 council election, Watsons donated $2489 to Briars Ward candidate, now Cr Rosemary Clark, and $1244 to David Cassells, who stood unsuccessfully in Cerberus Ward. Watsons’ director John Woodman unsuccessfully stood for Briars Ward in 2012 and 2016 (“Shire probe into permits” The News 24/12/19).

The recommendation councillors are being asked to adopt next week specifies that Mr Baker and Ms Sapolu “consider all relevant historical and current applications made by the companies to the council, with particular emphasis on the Martha Cove development”.

Although IBAC has not stated it will investigate planning on the Mornington Peninsula, it has announced the scope of its inquiry will be widened when hearings resume on 2 March.

The shire’s decision to review permits involving the Watsons, Wolfdene and Schutz companies followed similar moves by Frankston and Kingston councils.

Since Mr Baker announced the intended inquiry, The News has been told about several permit applications and decisions that ratepayers and councillors anticipate coming under scrutiny.

While The News has only been told about issues at Martha Cove being referred to IBAC, it is understood several other submissions will be made.

In two instances, shire planners are accused of accepting the “untested legal opinion” of a private surveyor and a legal firm to the detriment of objectors.

A shire planner is also alleged to have given approval under delegation to an overseas-based contractor, although the contract was later withdrawn.

Another instance includes state government approval of land at Crib Point being rezoned from industrial to residential. The proposed rezoning was backed by the shire.

First published in the Mornington News – 21 January 2020

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