Are Redland City councillors always acting in the public interest? They constantly make decisions which can greatly benefit individuals and business. Contracts worth millions of dollars are at stake.
Favorable planning and approval decisions can make landowners in the ‘right’ area enormously wealthy, with the potential to make property more valuable overnight.
Councillors must exercise this power responsibly, honestly and ethically. Just as importantly, they must be seen by the public to be doing so.
The public interest
To minimise the risk of councillors behaving badly, there are laws and procedures to manage the separation of private and public interests.
Queensland’s Local Government Act 2009 defines two concerns:
- The most serious is material personal interest (S.172 ) deemed to occur when a councillor (or someone personally connected to the councillor) stands to gain a benefit or suffer a loss depending on the outcome of discussion at a Council meeting. The penalty for improper behaviour relating to material personal interest is up to two years imprisonment.
- Conflict of interest (S. 173 ) occurs when a councillor’s personal interests could be different to the public interest.
The State Government publishes clear guidance for local councillors in the following document available on-line: Councillor responsibilities under the Local Government Act 2009 .
If a councillor has a material personal interest in a Council matter they are required to disclose their interest and leave the meeting room while the matter is being discussed and voted on.
If a councillor has a conflict of interest then the first thing that they must do is disclose this to the meeting. Depending on the views of the other meeting participants they may then be required to leave the meeting while the matter is being discussed and voted on.
Councillors are reminded of their obligations to declare any material personal interest or conflict of interest in the agenda papers for each Redland City Council meeting.
Councillors are also reminded that for each real or possible conflict of interest or material interest the following information must be recorded in the minutes of the meeting, and on the local government’s website—
- the name of the Councillor
- the nature of the interest as described by the Councillor.
Black, white and many shades of grey
Some circumstances are clear cut and obvious to all. For example, if Council was discussing a favorable rezoning of land owned by a councillor and/or their spouse then this would be an instance of material personal interest. A conflict of interest could be about a councillor’s club membership. But not all situations are so clear.
The test for material interest or conflict of interest is one of reasonableness. It is based on a composite view of the community’s judgment and so represents how a typical member of the community should behave in a particular situation.
Crucially, just the appearance of a conflict of interest undermines community confidence in the decisions of their local government.
Councillors are required to declare financial and non-financial interests of themselves and anyone closely related to them. The Redland City Council publishes these declarations on its webpage for each councillor.
Meetings, ‘workshops’ and approvals under delegation
Redland City councillors discuss many matters, including planning and rezoning applications, in informal meetings or ‘workshops’ which are currently not open to the public. In recent years our elected councillors appear to have increased the proportion of their discussion time that is non-public and undocumented. It is not clear if the normal rules and procedures relating to material personal interest or conflicts of interest apply to ‘workshops’ because no agendas or minutes are being made publicly available.
Not all matters require approval at a Council meeting. Many approvals and expenditure decisions are now being delegated to the Council’s Chief Executive Officer Officer (CEO) or other officers of the Council. When decisions are made at an officer level about a matter (in which a councillor has an interest) then it is particularly important that there be full confidence that the officer concerned is in no way able to be influenced by that councillor.
Political donations and fundraising
For all levels of government in Australia there are rules for disclosure of political donations.
The key reason was front and centre in the recent case of Hockey v. Fairfax. The court judgement found it reasonable to presume that in return for making large donations people might expect privileged acccess to a senior politician. The Judge noted the “distinction between conduct which may be [considered] undesirable or inappropriate, on the one hand, and conduct which is corrupt, on the other” (Hockey v. Fairfax 125).
In NSW it is illegal for property developers to make political donations. These laws were introduced in 2009 to reduce the risk and perception that developers could get favorable decisions by donating money to politicians. Unfortunately, it seems there is little will in State Parliament for similar laws in Queensland.
Former NSW Premier Nathen Rees explained why he introduced these laws in the Sydney Morning Herald where he said that the people of his state were:
“… entitled to a planning and governance system free of innuendo and corruption. Nothing corrodes public confidence more than a belief that favourable decisions can be bought. It is the definition of corruption.”
Disclosure of local government political donations in Queensland
In Queensland, requirements for public disclosure of political donations, loans and gifts to local government candidates are governed by the Local Government Electoral Act 2011 and are set out in a handbook published by the Electoral Commission of Queensland.
Candidates for local councils are required to disclose the total amount they receive as gifts, and loans. They must also provide details for any gifts or loans with a total value of $200 or more.
Councillors may benefit from other forms of fundraising such as payments to attend functions or overly generous bids at auctions. These may not have to be disclosed under electoral laws, but could still trigger a material personal interest or a conflict of interest.
For the 2012 Redland City Council elections, publicly available disclosures show the following totals received by current councillors.
|Councillor|| Total amount declared
The councillor most at risk from possible concerns about conflict of interest over political donations is Mayor Karen Williams. Her disclosure return to the Electoral Commission states that 81 of her 922 donors contributed $200 or more.
Declared conflicts of interest by Redland City councillors
A review of Council meeting minutes shows that Redland City’s eleven councillors have made a total of 55 declarations about conflicts of interest or perceived conflicts of interest since their election in 2012. The number of declarations by each councillor are shown in the chart below. Some of these declarations relate to the same issue considered at more than one meeting.
Mayor Karen Williams has made 24 conflict of interest declarations. Various meeting minutes include declarations such as:
- Cr Williams declared a Conflict of Interest in the following item stating that the applicants had contributed to her campaign.
- Cr Williams declared a conflict of interest in Item 10.1.1 as the applicants had attended some of her fund raising events and left the meeting
- Cr Williams declared a perceived conflict of interest in the following item stating that a number of submitters are on her gift register. Cr Williams left the room
- Cr Williams declared a conflict of interest in the following item as the applicants had attended a couple of fundraising events. Cr Williams remained in the chamber for the debate and left the meeting at 11.37 am before the vote was taken
- Mayor K Williams declared a perceived conflict of interest in the following item stating that she was a recipient of in-kind support in her election campaign and left the meeting
Some examples of subjects over which the Mayor has declared conflicts include:
- Ausbuild’s developments in south east Thornlands
- Development of a crematorium in Thornlands
- Rezoning of rural land at Woodlands Drive and Taylor Road in Thornlands
Redland City Council appears to have in place procedures for the declaration and management of conflicts of interest which comply with applicable legislation.
However, the large number of declarations by the Mayor begs the question why she would accept donations from firms and people where there is a reasonable likelihood that a conflict of interest could occur.
Other questions which should be addressed and answered, to give the community assurance that Redland City Council is operating with the highest standards of probity and transparency, include:
- Have any political donors received privileged access to the Redland City Council’s decision makers?
- Why are so many Council matters now discussed in undocumented non-public forums such as ‘workshops’?
- Have ‘conflicted’ councillors avoided participation in all Council discussions about matters involving political donors, including undocumented meetings such as workshops?
Redlands2030 has made it possible for the community to examine the voting patterns of local councillors in “Spotlight on Mayor and Councillor voting records”. Community feedback on these issues would be appreciated.