THE public is finally being given free access to a register of gifts and benefits received by Mornington Peninsula Shire councillors and council staff.
The information was previously only available through the costly and time-consuming Freedom of Information process.
Last week’s decision by councillors to open the gifts register follows revelations that the shire CEO Carl Cowie accepted an invitation to join a Mediterranean cruise on a ship hired by businessman and Portsea property owner, Lindsay Fox (“Shire boss on Fox party cruise” The News 11/12/17).
Mr Cowie last week told The News he would not be listing the cruise in the gifts register.
The mayor Cr Bryan Payne, a former CEO at several municipalities, told The News on Thursday that he would not have accepted an invitation such as that made to Mr Cowie by Mr Fox.
“I wouldn’t have gone,” Cr Payne said. “I wouldn’t go for obvious reasons – I don’t think it’s appropriate.”
While Mr Cowie has called publicity over his trip “a distraction”, Cr Payne sees it as “a real topic”.
Mr Cowie says he told the mayor at the time of the impending July 2016 cruise, former councillor Graham Pittock, but was not bound by the Local Government Act to register it as it was made a no cost to council and during his annual leave.
As well as making the register publicly available (by appointment only) councillors have also called for a review of the “definitions” of words used in the Gifts, Benefits and Hospitality Policy, an “internal document” that is also now publicly available.
A review of the policy by councillors and council officers is designed “to ensure that any ambiguity is addressed in a clear and meaningful manner,” Mr Cowie stated in a news release following last week’s decision by councillors.
Cr Payne said “a solicitor is coming in to do it”.
Benefit, as defined in the current policy is defined in part as “something which is believed to be of benefit to the receiver” and can include accommodation and recreation trips.
Mr Cowie says the level of public interest being shown in the participation by him and his wife in Mr Fox’s so-called “conception cruise” was “a distraction to shire business”.
In an email response to questions from The News Mr Cowie stated “the shire is focused on continuing to work hard on behalf of our community”.
Councillors have also decided to drop the wording of the policy, which states, “The owner of this policy is the chief executive officer”.
Cr Payne said opening the gifts register to the public “is in the interest of community, councillors and council staff”.
“Making the gifts policy and registers fully available to the public strengthens transparency, sees the shire deliver over and above the requirements of the Local Government Act and Regulations, and is a positive response to changes in community expectations,” said Cr Payne.
The news release from the shire said making the gifts policy and register public would “ensure the organisation meets public expectations around transparency and the disclosure of gifts”.
Mr Cowie said the decision “improves transparency and accessibility for our community”.
“The organisation will continue to seek and implement ways to be accountable to the community, exceed community expectations, and ensure good governance.”
Cr David Gill said councillors and officers should register trips like that provided by Mr Fox.
“Anything that is perceived by the public as being a benefit should be registered,” Cr Gill said. “It’s best to always err of the side of caution.”
Cr Gill said it could be difficult to define a gift “such as meals provided at community group meeting, where it could be rude to refuse”.
“By reviewing the policy we’ll try to make it clearer so that everybody knows what’s in and what’s out.”
Councillors must tell Mr Cowie by 31 May if they intend to advertise his approximate $400,000-a-year job or renegotiate his contract which ends 30 November.
Appointments to see the councillors’ and officers’ gifts register can be made by calling the shire’s governance department on 1300 850 600.
Q & A with shire CEO
HERE are questions from The News and answers provided by Mornington Peninsula Shire CEO Carl Cowie following the council’s decision to make the gifts register available to the public.
A preamble to the Gifts, Benefits and Hospitality Policy – now to be reviewed – states that it has been developed “to ensure transparency” by councillors and council officers and “to avoid conflicts of interest”.
Will the CEO be listing his time spent on Lindsay Fox’s so-called “conception cruise”?
Mr Cowie states no, the details of the cruise have been discussed at length and it is his view that a private trip that was not made in an official capacity does not require listing on the shire’s gift register.
- Mr Cowie and his wife attended in a private capacity. Mr Cowie did not attend in an official capacity.
- Mr Cowie was on annual leave at the time, and there was no cost to council.
- The cruise took place in July 2016.
- Mr Cowie said it had already been reported in local media that Mr Fox chartered the Seabourn Odyssey for a seven-day trip between Athens and Venice.
- It has been reported that the cruise was a pre-celebration of Mr Fox’s 80th birthday.
- Mr Cowie personally paid for his airfares and accommodation to and from the cruise.
Mr Cowie says the level of public interest meant that the trip had proved a distraction to shire business. He says the shire is focused on continuing to work hard on behalf of our community.
When will the review to ensure “ambiguity is addressed in a clear and meaningful manner” be completed and who is conducting the review?
The review will be conducted by senior shire officers and councillors, and the review is expected to commence in the near future.