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.