Needless new record set for declaring conflicts of interest

By Stephen Mayne - Former City of Melbourne Councillor

While former Federal sports minister Bridget McKenzie and City of Casey councillors put on a masterclass when it comes to failing to declare or act upon conflicts of interest, the City of Melbourne councillors have gone to the other extreme.

At the February 4 Future Melbourne Committee (FMC), nine of the 10 councillors declared arguable conflicts and vacated the room when it came to voting on planning scheme amendment C278, which proposes much stronger protections for sunlight over public parks.

The amendment process was kicked off by a notice of motion from Greens Cr Cathy Oke in 2015 after a development was approved which overshadowed Gardiner Reserve in North Melbourne.

The CBD is already well protected, and Development Victoria disappointingly persuaded the Minister for Planning to carve out Docklands from the review, presumably to protect the value of large residual state government land holdings in Docklands.

However, a planning panel will now consider the proposed amendment for the rest of the municipality.

Reflecting the significance of what is being proposed, there were 119 submissions to council including from institutional heavyweights such as the AFL, Cricket Australia, Melbourne University, AFL clubs Carlton and Richmond, Lend Lease, the Department of Transport, Urbis, VicTrack, the Red Cross, Invest Victoria, the Property Council and the Royal Society.

However, none of these could be debated, commented upon or backed up at the February 4 committee meeting because every councillor with the exception of Nicolas Frances Gilley declared a conflict (Cr Jackie Watts was an apology) and left the room. It’s worth watching the webcast starting 21 minutes into proceedings and seeing how it played out over nine minutes as the councillors declared their conflicts and then the officers explained how they would progress the proposal to an independent planning panel using officer delegation powers.

Frankly, while the law is the law, the councillors have been too conservative here. It’s like when you set rates, everyone is impacted but sometimes you do need to be a little pragmatic on conflict declarations. Besides, apart from the two councillors who work for Melbourne University, none of the councillors explained the detail of the conflict, namely who the donor was and why it caused a conflict.

It’s a far-reaching amendment impacting on around 2000 properties, mainly by reducing future development potential. For instance, if the amendment passes, the state government would never be able to develop above Jolimont Station because this would overshadow the northern edges of Yarra Park.

There was only one request to speak (from Rupert Myer of Myer family fame) and 29 items of correspondence lodged before the meeting. It would have been much more but for the fact council officers contacted all 119 submitters a week earlier alerting them to the likely loss of quorum.

While campaign donations were a factor in eight of the nine conflict declarations (Cr Cathy Oke cited a conflict given her employer Melbourne University was impacted), CBD News can reveal that none of the donors were developers.

Indeed, the five residual Team Doyle councillors all vacated the room because their former colleague Tessa Sullivan, along with her husband Brendan Sullivan, owns a property in East Melbourne that was impacted and she had donated more than $40,000 to the Team Doyle campaign in 2016.

But Brendan Sullivan knew nothing of the amendment and didn’t even do a submission, so why did four councillors needlessly declare a conflict?

Even since Robert Doyle foolishly accepted more than $300,000 in donations from property developers for his 2012 campaign, loss of quorum has been a regular feature at City of Melbourne and this has undermined confidence in the council as a decision-making body.

Don’t get me wrong, it is better to lose quorum from conflict declarations than having conflicted councillors voting, but, for example, the current council is unable to make any decision on Crown Melbourne or broader poker machine matters because both Team Doyle and Lord Mayor Sally Capp have accepted campaign donations from Crown personnel (Harold Mitchell and Anne Peacock), the Australian Hotels Association, AHA members or a combination of all three.

I’m not aware of any council anywhere which has lost quorum more than 10 times due to conflict declaration over a seven-year period. Sometimes, such as on February 4, it was unnecessary because councillors took the “if in doubt get out” mantra too far.

In light of this, compromising campaign donations should be avoided by all candidates as much as possible in the upcoming election campaign so that the 2020-24 council doesn’t suffer the same regular loss of quorum.

Council still disclosing senior executive pay

Finally, I should correct this statement in the print version of my February CBD News column:

“Council itself has also regressed on pay disclosure, no longer revealing the contract terms and precise pay arrangements of its five most senior officers in the annual report.”

Council’s major commercial subsidiary Citywide has indeed stopped disclosing board and executive pay details but silly me failed to spot this data on page 127 of the 2018-19 City of Melbourne annual report:

Justin Hanney, CEO: $498,000 package and contract expires January 13, 2023.

Rob Adams, Director City Design and Project: $408,784 package and contract expires September 14, 2020.

Claire Ferres Miles, Director City Strategy and Place: $368,377 package and contract expires May 6, 2021.

Katrina McKenzie, Director City Economy and Activation: $368,377 package and contract expires February 28, 2020.

Linda Weatherson, Director City Operations: $368,377 package and contract expires July 18, 2019.

Besides City of Manningham, no other Australian council voluntarily makes such transparent disclosures and Town Hall should be commended for maintaining the practice for six years now.

However, what wasn’t revealed in 2018-19 was the remuneration arrangements for former CEO Ben Rimmer who left the building in December 2018 without any disclosure of his exit package. We’ll bring you more on that next month, even though the Town Hall spin doctors have advised that “City of Melbourne does not comment on CEO remuneration or contract renewals”.

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