Mayors and ethics: a tale of two cities

In testimony at a CCC hearing Logan Mayor Luke Smith explains his ethics in relation to political donations and development applications.

Logan City Mayor Luke Smith (Photo: 7.30 Report) and Redland City Mayor Karen Williams (Photo: Redlands2030)

During his appearance before the Crime and Corruption Commission (CCC) recently, Logan City Mayor Luke Smith explained how he dealt with conflicts of interest over political donations. His ethics based approach, if generally adopted, could improve the integrity of local government in Queensland.

The night before he was scheduled to appear as a witness at the CCC’s Operation Belcarra public hearing into the 2016 local government elections, the ABC 7.30 Report aired a scene setting story which raised some pretty tough questions about the way Luke Smith dealt with conflict of interest issues involving a political donor.

But next day, in response to probing questions from legal counsel assisting the CCC, Mayor Luke Smith said under oath that he had nothing to do with development applications which were submitted by people who had donated any money to his election campaign.

His position was clear and absolute – if there was a donation he would have no involvement in the matter.

It didn’t matter “whether someone gave me $500 or $6,000” he said.

In discussing his lack of involvement, Mayor Luke Smith made it clear that this included receiving “no updates” and avoiding participation in any conversations including “corridor conversations” with Council staff and councillors.

The approach to dealing with conflicts of interest described by Mayor Luke Smith is consistent with the ethics and rules observed by private and public sector organisations with good governance.

The Local Government Act

Remarkably, though, Queensland’s laws governing local government do not require such ethics to be observed by Mayors and other elected councillors.

The Local Government Act deals with behaviour of elected officials in formal council meetings but doesn’t prescribe how mayors and other councillors must behave outside formal meetings on matters where there may be a conflict of interest, especially if political donations are involved.

Perhaps the people who drafted and voted on the legislation presumed that all significant matters in local government are dealt with in formal meetings.

Ethics in the Redlands

But this is not the case in some councils. We know that Redland City’s Mayor and councillors spend a considerable amount of time discussing development applications and other contentious matters in non-public meetings, some of which are described as “workshops”.

These non-public meetings are not subject to the Local Government Act’s requirements for councillors to declare any conflicts of interest.

At “workshops” councillors are regularly asked to give Redland City Council staff feedback and direction. Sometimes matters are voted upon if councillors have different views.

So what might happen if the Redland City Mayor Karen Williams were to appear before a CCC inquiry and be asked to give sworn testimony in response to the question:

“Have you ever participated in workshops, “corridor discussions” or other conversations with Council officers and elected councillors about development applications lodged by your political donors?”

Would her response reassure the Redlands community that its Mayor observes the same ethics as the Logan Mayor?

Our understanding, based on advice from existing and former councillors, is that Redlands Mayor Karen Williams has often participated in meetings, workshops and conversations about development applications which involve her political donors, without any conflict of interest declarations.

It seems the only time that she declares a conflict of interest is if she is legally obliged to do so because discussion is taking place in a meeting subject to the legal requirements of the Local Government Act.

Ausbuild case study

On 5 June 2013 the infrastructure charges to be paid by Ausbuild Pty Ltd for its small lot housing development in Thornlands were being discussed and determined by a Coordination Committee meeting of the Redland City Council – a meeting subject to Local Government Act requirements.

Mayor Karen Williams declared a conflict of interest. The minutes record her reason as “the applicant [Ausbuild] was a contributor to her Mayoralty campaign”.

Mayor Williams disclosed in 2016 that she had received $4,000 from Ausbuild on 30 May 2012, just after the 2012 Mayoral Election.

Having declared a conflict of interest the Mayor left the room. In her absence the meeting was chaired by Deputy Mayor Alan Beard.

The meeting minutes show that the meeting was adjourned for a lunch break at 12:28 p.m.

It’s understood that the matter was ready to be voted on and there was in fact no need for an adjournment.

The minutes show that councillors Bishop, Boglary, Elliott and Ogilvie voted against having an adjournment but the other six councillors in the room supported the lunch motion.

Normally, councillors have a few sandwiches brought into the Council chambers during a lunch break. On this occasion, somewhat unusually, the sandwiches were taken into a lunchroom in the council offices.

Cr Ogilvie says he was surprised to find that the Mayor was in the lunchroom, with Council officers, openly discussing the adjourned item of business with some (but not all) other councillors.

The minutes record that the meeting reconvened at 12:50 p.m. with the Mayor not present.

As soon as the meeting reconvened the vote was taken. A contentious motion which gave Ausbuild a relatively generous infrastructure charges deal was narrowly approved on the casting vote of Deputy Mayor Alan Beard who was chairing the meeting in the Mayor’s absence.

At 12:50 p.m. the Mayor returned to the Chambers and a minute or two later at 12:52 pm she declared the meeting closed.

State Government – things to do

The State Government should amend the Local Government Act to ensure that anyone elected to office (Mayors and other councillors) must declare conflicts of interest arising out of political donations the moment they first become aware that there is a conflict of interest. And there should be no wriggle room for mayors and councillors compromised by political donations to “stay in the room and vote in the community interest”.

Let’s make it really clear and simple for our local government politicians.

If you’ve received a donation from someone then you leave the room (including the lunchroom) if any matter is being discussed involving that donor.

Redland City Council – things to do

While waiting for the State Government to pass stricter laws about declaring and dealing with political donation conflicts of interest, Redland City Council can takes steps to implement proper ethics based standards for dealing with political donations.

This can be done by amending the Redland City Council  Code of Conduct for Councillors to clearly spell out what the Mayor and other councillors should do (and not do) if they have received a political donation from a person or company that has dealings with the Council.

Mayor Luke Smith’s testimony at the CCC’s public hearing on 13 June 2017 offers good guidance in amending the Redland City Code of Conduct for Councillors.

 

Redlands2030 – 18 June 2017

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7 thoughts on “Mayors and ethics: a tale of two cities

  1. Here is an obvious question that many of the local residents are asking: why are our concerns being ignored by Redland City Council in relation to massive amounts of tree clearing and housing development? The residents are obviously losing, along with the wildlife, so who is gaining??

  2. AUSBUILD. Ron Loney, prior to embarking on his now prolific home/unit bldg enterprise, lived near me in Capalaba in 1983, at which time I purchased my home from Ray White Capalaba agency he was attached to. My home was rented until moving in permanently in July 1986.
    Recall when Cr for Capalaba Karen Williams, running for Mayor, set up a campaign office in Victoria Pt. assisted by then Cr Peter Dowling, since it was rumoured, due to residential community angered by six 6-storey apt bldgs. approved across from K-Mart, declared code assessable, never seen at meetings to discuss this massive undertaking, she could lose the election.
    Successfully voted into mayoral position, shop assistants in Harvey Norman, Capalaba, informed me developers paid for Ms Williams’ mayoral campaign.
    Mr Loney speaks openly of providing thousands of campaign dollars in addition to other popular, wealthy developers that shall remain nameless.
    The small lot, wall to wall style dwellings Ausbuild built on Kinross Road with skimpy backyards surprised a friend when viewing the site, saying…where can kids kick a ball?
    Flower farm adjacent to Finlandia Village on Cleveland-Redland Bay Rd Thornlands, had a buyer, but mayor at the time, saved it for Ausbuild, now complete….along with another prolific builder, providing wall-to-wall units directly opposite Finlandia Village. It’ s a case of looking after those who in turn, look after you.
    BUNNINGS
    Ausbuild offices are directly opposite Bunnings in Capalaba, rumoured they are eager for Bunnings to move in order to transform the site into a housing estate. Locals are concerned as the Bunnings site by 4-way intersection on Old Cleveland Road and East to 1 Brewer Street, where the new McKenzie CapellaBay Aged Care home is located, has remained vacant for over a decade. After a David & Goliath court battle, Brewer St residents won, forbidding Bunnings using their street for any part of their hardware warehouse that belong in an industrial area…away from residential streets or nursing homes…Yet..there are fears Bunnings are waiting …for the right time…to try again, having been rejected twice in the past. One operative recently delivered flyers to business owners in the complex, asking they call a phone number listed if they objected to Bunnings building a road around the complex from Anderson St on Old Cleveland Rd to Brewer St. …but owners informed me there was no reply to phone calls.
    It is to be hoped, due to location, traffic congestion, air and noise pollution, with evidence that, with most vehicles now powered by diesel, 40+ chemicals, one being formaldehyde, proved by scientists to cause cancer, breaking down mechanisms that fix damage in DNA….will never be approved….limiting congestion, and safeguarding as much as possible, community health.

  3. The N. Deacon papers are a substantial step towards electoral contributions reform. However there exists other things happening in the corruption bucket which deleteriously affect ; public administration , plannings schemes , good governance , working the system, infrastructure plans , public access to information and committees, and closing off of policy change and public consultation here in Redlands and across Local Authorities.
    The types of surveillance on land deals suggest that some of the land deals can identify circumstance but not yet the paper trail.
    The types of scams vary between Local Authorities and these remain apparently unidentified by the CCC.
    The quick brickwalling against Rob Pyne on friday 16th June keeps him off line for 2 months from disclosing more corruption in Local Authorities.
    In the meantime we are to get ready for a Ministers Koala Panel Report which is unlikely to save the koala , 7 pieces of arguably new rejectable Planning Laws, Some Planning Scheme Amendments and a gutted SEQ Regional Plan.

  4. The only clean solution here is to prevent political donations altogether, and not just from developers either. The integrity of our voting system, the paper waste, vandalism, prohibitive costs denying us integrity and talented representation rather than the rather limited offering of moneyed applicants or those potentially compromised by securing eligibility on the basis of sponsorship would be effectively removed if all candidates were granted equivalent platforms and provisions to present their case for election. That reform might save us all some of the indignities and discomfort of witnessing the worst of human behaviour in character assassinations, threats and intimidation, especially around the polling booths. All candidates could then qualify their statements with substantial evidence and merit supporting that case. Auditors could also be appointed to qualify and validate those claims to avoid reputational and discrediting damage at a later date that serves to discredit both a council and its business community and economic health too.

    Until the provision for political donations is removed, we are all accepting the potential for an elected officer and our political system to be badly and blatantly compromised. Perhaps in removing the potential for self-interest and potential personal profit, in this aspect at least, we can provide less incentive for self-serving candidates, and attract those for whom service to the community is truly the privilege it is, to be served with integrity. Certainly, only then will we be able to claw back ethical representation, which we have received little evidence of in recent years.

    The lack of appropriate community consultation across all areas of significance should be perceived and acknowledged as the insult that it is, and held to full account, in a case the people should support in demanding an ICAC for Queensland.

    Case in point: It really is worth comparing the CCC’s performance against the NSW ICAC. In 2016, The NSW ICAC statistics recorded approx. 123 Convictions, and over 130 Inquiries. By comparison, The Qld CCC recorded no convictions and no inquiries. By the way, Operation Balcarra (currently unfolding) is not accepted as an inquiry, due to witnesses being rendered “immune” from prosecution reference Section 179. How is that an effective deterrent against criminal abuse? Is that because there was no evidence of corruption in Queensland?

    I think we all know the reality of our situation. We should get over the fear of discussing it, and collectively demand a state ICAC in a state supported action.

  5. WOW !!! innuendo that Trumpand his lot would be proud of !!!!Especially seeing the developers and even ex Councillors that are also developers and the developers behind these pages as well …..what about ethics ???? what about accountability and openness …..people in glass houses !!!! Let’s get an ICAC to cover all levels of government ,then ALL who be exposed

  6. If Luke Smith is to be believed….he sounds too good to be true.

    The solutions for both Council and the State Government seem easy enough…all it takes is a bit of gumption and a willingness to put “public interest” FIRST.

    • Not good enough. What good can a Mayor do, if they are excluded from every significant development decision due to having accepted political donations from the applicants, and/or their associates? Better to have a “Jury” of councillors all empowered to vote with integrity, because all potential for self-promotion and personal profiteering has been removed, as well as the potential to manipulate others by default of being perfectly positioned to do so, and be in the know of all competitive interests and contributing factors.