AN “external planning expert” is being hired to review all permits relating to the development of Martha Cove at Safety Beach.
The audit of the $650 million housing and marina project will go back 20 years.
The Martha Cove investigation will run parallel to Mornington Peninsula Shire’s review of all planning approvals involving three Mornington-based companies, engineers, planners and developers Watsons, Schutz Consulting and Wolfdene Built.
Frankston and Kingston councils are also undertaking similar internal investigations in the wake of last year’s hearings by the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission (IBAC) which last week led to the state government sacking of Casey Council.
The IBAC is set to widen its hearings when they resume on 2 March.
While the shire instigated it own audit of permit approvals involving the three companies, the state Opposition’s planning spokesman Tim Smith last week labelled Martha Cove a “controversial project” that “finally won state Labor approval in late 2002, following political donations”.
Mr Smith said the Opposition had been refused 76 “records of documents” relating to a planning scheme amendment at Casey between Labor’s Planning Minister Richard Wynne and former Labor MPs, Judith Graley and Jude Perera.
Ms Graley, who was the peninsula’s mayor in 2001 and a councillor until 2003, was MP for Narre Warren South while Mr Perera was MP for Cranbourne.
“Documents between former Labor MPs is extremely important into the [Watsons director] John Woodman controversy, so why won’t Dick Wynne release them?” Mr Smith asked in a news release.
“Given the thousands of dollars donated to the Labor Party by John Woodman, the community deserves to know exactly what influence Judith Graley and Jude Perera exerted over Dick Wynne.”
The shire’s current mayor, Cr Sam Hearn, said the “already had enough reason” to single Martha Cove out for investigation.
He hoped the Martha Cove investigation would be completed at the same time as the broader review into permit approvals and the three companies “within six to eight weeks”.
“But, if it takes longer, that won’t be the end of the world.”
Cr Hearn said the investigation would look at how councillors voted as well gifts or donations made to councillors or council officers.
Cr Hearn said that Cr Rosie Clark – who has declared she received $2489 from Watsons during the 2016 council elections – has stepped down as chair of the shire’s planning committee (“Shire probe into permits” The News 24/12/19).
“She didn’t give any direct reasons, but remains a member of the [all-council] committee,” Cr Hearn said.
He said Cr Clark had “stepped out” of a recent briefing to councillors as her election donation was “vaguely associated” to the issue being discussed and the companies under investigation.
Cr Hearn said IBAC would be told if any questions were raised involving officers that no longer worked at the shire.
“We’re not the federal police or IBAC, who have the powers to bring them in for questioning,” he said.
He said investigations already underway within the shire involved checking officers’ and councillors’ gift and donation registers.
Cr Hearn said IBAC had “given no indication of where they’re going” with its investigations, although “everyone was surprised” when it became known that IBAC had made secret recordings and photographs in the lead up to its hearings regarding alleged corruption at Casey.
He said the best outcome would be for bipartisan support to discover how “this occurred in the planning system”.
“Scoring political points will be of no help to the community,” Cr Hearn said.
“No party has been covered in glory, and it would be better to get another system that is of benefit to the community.”
First published in the Southern Peninsula News – 25 February 2020