FOUR Mornington Peninsula Shire councillors attended a $200 a head tour and hospitality event at the Continental Hotel, Sorrento 17 days before voting to reduce the rent on the hotel’s use of public land for outdoor dining.
Billed as a “tour of the Hotel Continental with canapes and drinks”, the Saturday 19 March event was attended by the mayor, Cr Anthony Marsh and Crs Lisa Dixon, Debra Mar and Susan Bissinger.
A check of the shire’s register of “gifts presented to a councillor” last week, showed Mar as the only councillor to have listed the event.
The shire’s advocacy, communication and engagement manager Randal Mathieson said he understood all declarations had been submited by councillors who accepted the hotel’s invitation and that the gifts register was updated monthly.
Mar told The News that the re-developed Continental Hotel was “fantastic … and will bring lots of tourists” to Sorrento.
Bissinger said she had submitted her Councillor Gift, Benefit and Hospitality Declaration form within days of attending the event and believed other councillors had done the same – “although Anthony was late” – within the required 14 days.
Councillors must submit a form if an invitation is accepted or declined and to state if “accepting the offer [would] create an actual, potential or perceived conflict of interest”.
If the answer was yes, “the offer must be declined”.
“I decided to decline the invitation because attending would be perceived to be having a pecuniary interest,” Gill said on Saturday (24 April).
“I knew we would soon be voting on how much rent to charge the hotel [to use the footpath].
“Some councillors changed how they voted in December at the [5 April] meeting [agreeing to reduce the rent].”
Bissinger said “there was 100 per cent no conflict of interest” and would attend any event that would benefit businesses in Sorrento.
“We were given nothing for free [at the Continental event] and I have put it on the register … everything was above board.”
She said there had been 1000 people at the event, including rival candidates in the 21 May federal election for the seat of Flinders now held by the retiring MP, Greg Hunt.
Marsh said it had been “entirely appropriate” for him and the other three councillors to “celebrate the opening of a major project and employer” on the peninsula.
Also at the event organised by a promotions company were peninsula business operators, high profile Melbourne “celebrities” (Eddie McGuire, chef George Calombaris, AFL footballer and coach Nathan Buckley, radio and TV presenter Steve Price and entertainer Tones and I).
Nepean Ratepayers’ Association president Colin Watson, who has previously criticised the original rent to be charged by the as as “well below market value”, said the attendance by councillors at the Continental’s event “does not pass my pub test”.
At their Tuesday 5 April meeting councillors agreed to charge the hotel $38,000 a year for the first three years of its use, $19,000 less than the figure they set in December (“Shire settles bill for outdoor dining” The News 19/4/22).
That decision overturned a direction in December to charge $38,000 for the first year, $45,000 in the second and $50,000 in the third year.
The hotel rejected the shire’s lease offer in December and told shire CEO John Baker to negotiate with the hotel. His negotiated result saved the hotel $19,000 over the first three years of the lease.