Conflicts of interest are an ongoing area of concern in local government. It’s often been said over the years that perceptions of a conflict are just as significant as any actual conflict of interest.
In concluding a recent assessment of Brisbane’s Lord Mayor, the Crime and Corruption Commission (CCC) decided to take no further action but highlighted how certain practices in local government may give rise to perceptions or allegations of corruption. The CCC said:
The CCC continues to remind public officials and elected officials of the importance of transparency and accountability. The CCC encourages the Government to take steps to require decisions-makers to demonstrate clearly that all decisions are equitable, transparent and represent value for money.
In this regard, it is the CCC’s view that allegations such as these may have been avoided by open and transparent declarations of all known interests in or related to a matter for decision. This includes the declaration of any known political donations, whether or not the declaration is required by law.
Back in 2006, a CMC report by Garry Crooke QC said in the area of conflict of interest, perception is all important because the test is:
…whether a reasonable member of the public, properly informed, would feel that the conflict is unacceptable.
The CMC report concluded that:
…the appearance of a conflict of interest may be as serious as an actual conflict because it may reduce public confidence in the integrity of office that is held.
Redland City Council and conflicts of interest
Every agenda for meetings of the Redland City Council draws councillors’ attention to the need for any actual or perceived conflicts of interest to be declared. Any declarations of conflict (actual or perceived) are recorded in the meeting minutes.
The proper declaration of a conflict of interest requires (under the Local Government Act) that minutes of the meeting record “the nature of the personal interest, as described by the councillor”.
Cr Williams and the Shoreline decision
In November 2015, the development application for the Shoreline project was considered by Redland City Council. This was the biggest development application in the Redlands’ history, involving about 4,000 dwellings to accommodate 10,000 people.
At the point of having to declare any conflict of interest, Mayor Karen Williams said :
There has been grumblings in various social media forums etc as to my relationship with the applicant. I will have it noted in the minutes. However I will remain in the room and I will vote in the community interest.
Presumably, the Mayor thought these few words were sufficient to discharge her obligations under the Local Government Act..
But Councillor Craig Ogilvie moved a point order about possible conflicts of interest. He said “there was significant evidence that some of the applicants, people involved in the application, had attended functions that she had held as fund raisers”
Councillor Williams responded:
I’ve noted my perceived conflict Councillor and I have abided by the legislation as required and you have access to my gift return at any time as has every member of the public.
But of course she didn’t make any comment in her declaration about what might be the basis for any “grumblings”, the nature of the actual or perceived conflict of interest.
A lengthy meeting followed and subsequently Council resolved to grant preliminary approval to the Shoreline development on a vote of 6 to 5. Councillor Williams stayed in the room, chaired the meeting and voted for the motion.
A formal complaint has been lodged
Councillor Williams’ declaration of a perceived conflict of interest over the Shoreline decision is now the subject of a complaint by he Birkdale Progress Association to the Minister for Local Government. The complaint documents a series of matters that might give rise to a perception of a conflict of interest, in that people or companies with an interest in Shoreline have:
- attended a fundraising launch of Cr Williams’ 2012 mayoral campaign
- transacted a multi-million dollar land purchase from the Williams family estate
- made the use of commercial premises available to Cr Williams for use as headquarters for her 2012 mayoral campaign
- occupied key roles in a community organisation which attacked Cr Williams’ political opponents at the 2012 election
Any one of these examples may have contributed to a perception of conflict of interest. None of them were disclosed by Cr Williams at the Council’s November 2015 meeting about Shoreline.
The complaint raised by the Birkdale Progress Association was tabled in state parliament today by the Member for Cairns Rob Pyne, together with other information documenting matters leading up to the Shoreline decision.
A number of questions remain unanswered:
- At the November 2015 Council meeting to discuss Shoreline, did Cr Williams adequately describe her actual and/or perceived conflict of interest?
- What was the nature of her relationship with the applicants and others who stood to benefit if Shoreline was approved?
- Why did Cr Williams refer to just her gift return as being a defining source information in relation to any possible conflict of interest?
- What was the nature of the personal interest, to be described by the Councillor as required by the Council’s guidelines?
- When previous matters regarding Shoreline were debated in Council meetings, or discussed elsewhere in Council, did Cr Williams declare any actual and/or perceived conflict of interest?
Redlands2030 – 16 March 2016