In-house inquiry may lead to ‘transparency’

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THE investigation into planning decisions involving three Mornington-based planning and development companies could “potentially encourage [the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission] to look at the Mornington Peninsula”.

This eventuality would be a “welcome outcome … if we get greater transparency” as a result, according to Mornington Peninsula Shire mayor Cr Sam Hearn.

Councillors last week endorsed moves outlined in December by CEO John Baker to review decisions made on planning requests by 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 (“Permit probe goes further than IBAC” The News 20/1/20).

Cr Hearn said the shire would send information “on any irregularities” that are found to IBAC, which will restart and widen hearings in March that have already heard allegations of corruption in planning decisions made by the City of Casey.

He said having IBAC investigate past decisions made by the shire “may be a good thing” as the shire did not have the resources for such inquiries.

Early in last November’s hearings into planning at Casey (Operation Sandon) the IBAC revealed that its investigators had used electronic eavesdropping devices, including phone taps and had secretly taken photographs as well as seizing records.

Cr Hearn said regulations required councillors and staff to list donations and gifts, but the same stringent rules did not apply to state and federal politicians.

“This is not included in the review [of decisions involving the three companies] but has been flagged as something councillors have spoken about and what we could look into in the future,” he said.

“While local government has the most stringent reporting guidelines of any level of government, it is something that we should be continually revisiting to demonstrate transparency [in the system].”

Cr Hearn said allowing online public access to the shire’s staff gifts register was “definitely something that should be looked at and considered”.

The inquiry now underway at the shire includes:

  • Decision-making by officers under delegated authority in relation to the three companies;
  • Reviewing declared conflicts of interest made by councillors in council meetings and those made by officers in relation to delegated decision-making;
  • Inspecting the Gifts, Benefits and Hospitality Register to see if any gifts or benefits were provided by the relevant companies to councillors or officers;
  • Review of electoral donations made by the three companies or persons to councillors and council candidates; and
  • Consideration to significant strategic planning documents that have been developed and the Interest groups lobbying in relation to those planning documents and outcomes.

The inquiry by the shire will also “consider all relevant historical and current applications made by the companies to the council, with particular emphasis on the Martha Cove development”.

First published in the Southern Peninsula News – 4 February 2020

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