Political donations and conflicts of interest in Redland City Council

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
 Donors
BEARD, Alan nil
BISHOP, Paul nil
BOGLARY, Wendy  nil
EDWARDS, Mark  nil
ELLIOT, Murray  nil
GLEESON, Paul  nil
HARDMAN, Kim-Maree  $17,883 9
HEWLETT, Lance  $4,000 3
OGILVIE, Craig  $500 1
TALTY, Julie  $1,930 73
WILLIAMS, Karen  $138,372 922

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.

Conflicts declared in Redland City Council meetings 2012 to 2015 blue and red

——————————————————————————————————–

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

Some questions

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? 

Further information

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.

Redlands2030

Please note: Offensive or off-topic comments will be deleted. If offended by any published comment please email thereporter@redlands2030.net

4 thoughts on “Political donations and conflicts of interest in Redland City Council

  1. I find it interesting that our local “COMMUNITY” news paper The Redlands Times is not interested in chasing up these facts and asking some questions of our Mayor.

  2. I wonder if any of those who donated to the Mayor or any Councillor’s campaign are on the Development Industry Reference Group?

  3. there are many conflicts of interest , and not all political monitory donations ;
    *.some are stacking the vote to take more than your divisions fair share of the rates revenue ,
    * some are ganging up on ratepayers that can not vote so that you can keep your own rates low
    *some are developing substantial property portfolios whist in council ,that may or may not have had inside information
    * some are with holding infrastructure from other divisions so as to pork barrell areas to appeal to their electorate
    * some are driving nasty ,derogatory terms as a mantra for political put downs of other areas within the electorate so as to use fear mongering and superior attitudes as a defense for grabbing headlines(votes) at the expense of the most vulnerable
    *and some are the undermining of other Councillors via community focus groups designed to attack and belittle whilst keeping their hands clean …..
    There are many forms of conflict of interest and many forms of political donations …..let he /she that is without guilt cast the stone or he/she in glass houses …..

  4. A conflict of interest can be just advising the meeting that you are a member of an organisation such as the Museum, a sporting or service group etc and one of mine was that I previously owned a property (though on sold since then) and that you will vote in the community’s best interest. Not all the declared conflicts above are from developers contributions. Recent changes in the Local Gov. Act allow councillors to participate in discussions on developments where they have a conflict so long as they aren’t in the room when the decision is being voted on. It has even happened when a confidential meeting discussing a development was adjourned for lunch so further discussions could happen outside the meeting room, then councillors went back into chambers and voted. I have never accepted donations and have paid full price for all campaign material from local businesses. Allows me to always stay in the room and vote.

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