MORNINGTON Peninsula Shire Council dropped a bombshell last week by walking away from a hearing in the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal, part of a lead-in to determine what activities can be carried out Peninsula Aero Club’s Tyabb airfield.
The unexpected withdrawal opens the shire up to claims for legal expenses by the PAC on top of $32,000 it has already been ordered to pay (“Shire’s $32,000 payout to aero club” The News 23/2/21).
The PAC response to the shire move was to immediately declare it had “all required permits to operate” its Tyabb airfield and suggests it could lead the way for other parties “to seek damages for loss of income, reputation and other losses”.
In an email to councillors, Mr Baker said it was a “mistaken interpretation” to see the withdrawal as council “walking away” from its dispute with PAC.
He said it was “standard practice for us to hold without-prejudice conversations to head off potential VCAT proceedings – perhaps something we should do more of”.
The shire’s lawyers, Mornington Legal, told VCAT on 4 March that it would seek an adjournment at the Friday 19 March “practice day hearing” but, two days before that hearing, said it wanted to withdraw “to allow negotiations [with PAC] to continue in good faith”.
The shire’s request, signed for Mornington Legal by Luke English, said the dispute with PAC was not resolved, but “parties to this matter have been involved in productive discussions”.
PAC president Jack Vevers said he was “not surprised” by the shire’s move but would have “welcomed an opportunity to have VCAT decide on what we say have been baseless claims by the shire…”
“The shire’s attempt to shut down the airport in May 2019 has caused many anxious times for the 100 people working across the airport which had been threatening their jobs and businesses,” he said. “One business owner had found the whole event so stressful that he left the airport.”
Mr Vevers said the shire’s withdrawal from last week’s hearing “raises concerns about whether this could be considered a misuse of legal process in order to force the airport operators into capitulation”.
The latest legal manoeuvring comes as PAC appears to be undergoing internal turmoil, with the resignation of four directors and members of its safety committee (“Top resignations shake-up aero club” The News 17/3/21).
Upset residents say the shire’s back down has “deprived over 300 residents from the Tyabb community and the surrounding areas who wished to be considered at the [VCAT] proceedings from having a democratic voice”.
Spokesperson Dr Ian Munro said the aborted hearing “would have finally determined the validity of [the club’s] permits to operate”.
Dr Munro doubted shire CEO John Baker’s claim that private discussions with PAC “would achieve a balanced and fair and sustainable coexistence between the airfield operation and the local community”.
“If the shire is intent on making unilateral decisions without community input then the community needs to demand an independent inquiry or have the minister call it in to go before an independent panel.”