MORNINGTON Peninsula Shire councillors are expected this month to receive a report on planning approvals involving three Mornington-based companies, engineers, planners and developers Watsons, Schutz Consulting and Wolfdene Built.
As well as involving its own officers, the shire hired an “external planning expert” to review permits going back 20 years relating to the $650 million Martha Cove development at Safety Beach.
The investigations were ordered last December to make sure the shire has not made corrupt planning decisions similar to ones alleged at the City of Casey during the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission’s Operation Sandon.
Shire councillors on 23 June asked the state government to consider banning all donations to political parties and candidates in local and state government elections.
If that was not acceptable, the shire suggested banning “all political and developer donations, including donations connected to town planning, property development, developer consultants and lobbyists”.
All councillors at Casey were sacked by the state government after allegations of corruption aired at the IBAC hearings. It was alleged that some Casey councillors had financial ties to Watson director John Woodman.
An internal audit of planning decisions at Frankston Council found that 44 applications or requests had been lodged by the companies named in the IBAC investigation, but that only one had been reported to councillors for a decision, Although the audit has not been released, The News understands that 40 of those planning applications were made by Watsons.
The report found that two “high risk” findings were made by auditors.
The internal review at Frankston a council planning officer had conducted an onsite meeting with a Watsons employee. It is understood that auditors found no documented record of the meeting and discovered it through email communications. The News is not suggesting wrongdoing by any council staff.
Meanwhile, the shire, which has had dealings with Mr Woodman and Watsons for many years, says its investigation is “progressing well”.
In February the mayor, Cr Sam Hearn told The News he expected the wider review to be completed “in six to eight weeks”.
However, on 26 May, Amanda Sapolu, head of governance and legal, said the review had been delayed by COVID-19 pandemic.
“Due to the interruption of COVID-19, the review hasn’t progressed as quickly as anticipated, but we anticipate preliminary findings shortly,” she said.
“The areas being addressed are those areas identified in the council resolution of 28 January 2020.”
Ms Sapolu said between shire officers and IBAC “must generally be kept confidential pursuant to the legislation that IBAC administers”.
As previously reported by The News, several employees of Watsons and associated companies have previously worked for the shire and the state government (“Permit probe goes further than IBAC” The News 20/1/20).
First published in the Southern Peninsula News – 7 July 2020