Was Mayor Karen Williams’ self referral to the CCC a cynical media stunt?
Upset by social media criticism of herself, the Mayor sought a clean bill of health from the State’s prime anti-corruption agency. In essence she said that people had been calling her names and asked for the Crime and Corruption Commission (CCC) to say that she’s squeaky clean.
The Mayor’s extraordinary behavior seems to have been triggered by an on-line petition: Vote of No Confidence for Redland City Mayor Karen Williams and resulting comments on social media.
The initial response to this criticism was for the Council’s Legal Officer to write to five people accusing them of defamatory imputations against the Mayor and un-named council officers. Council’s heavy handed approach continued with official complaints to a person’s employer. These clumsy attempts to quieten things down quickly backfired, with a Brisbane Times article getting widely shared on social media.
Then the Mayor announced to the world that she would refer herself to the CCC, perhaps expecting all criticism to be dispelled with one quick blast of air freshener. No one was surprised to hear that the CCC wasn’t interested.
Criticism goes with the job
Many people in the Redlands are concerned about various Council issues including inappropriate development, high rates and lack of transparency. Redlands2030 has raised concerns in recent articles about many issues such as:
- Political donations and conflicts of interest
- The role of a developer reference group
- Secretive plans to sell off Council parkland
As the City’s most senior elected official, the Mayor is the focal point of many citizens’ concerns. She should not be surprised that some of her actions (and inactions) have been heavily criticised. Prior to the 2012 election, her political rival (Melva Hobson) was mercilessly attacked.
Freedom of expression is the cornerstone of democracy. People can put forward opinions, beliefs and arguments subject of course to defamation laws. The rise of social media has been a game changer, making it easier for people’s views to reach larger audiences.
With the next Council elections less than six months away, it’s likely that there will be lots more public discussion about local politics. Concerns will continue to be raised, fairly or otherwise, about the City’s political personalities.
If people have specific concerns about the conduct of elected officials there are various ways to make complaints and ask for them to be investigated.
Complaints to Council
According to the Council’s Complaints Register, at least 32 complaints about Redland City’s councillors have been lodged since the last Council election in 2012.
Redland City Council provides information about making complaints on its Complaints webpage. Anyone can make a complaint about a councillor and it is possible for complaints to be made anonymously.
The Council’s CEO normally assesses complaints about councillors but if the complaint is referred by the Mayor or CEO, the Department of Local Government gets involved. The complaints process may result in findings at various levels of seriousness: inappropriate conduct, misconduct or corruption.
If people have concerns about the Mayor, or Council generally, and they are not happy to have their complaint investigated by the Council’s CEO then they can take their concerns to the Queensland Ombudsman.
The Ombudsman can investigate a wide range of complaints about local councils including actions and decisions that may be unlawful, unreasonable, unfair, improperly discriminatory or otherwise wrong. The role and powers of the Ombudsman are summarised in this fact sheet. The process for making complaints is explained on the Ombudsman’s website.
Crime and Corruption Commission (CCC)
The Crime and Corruption Commission has a much narrower role. Its purpose is to investigate corrupt conduct in the public sector, in particular, more serious or systemic corrupt conduct. It does not investigate matters relating to local councillors, unless their conduct could amount to a criminal offence.
The CCC website explains what is corrupt conduct, noting that “the conduct must be serious enough that, if proved, would constitute a criminal offence or a disciplinary breach providing grounds for dismissal.”
The CCC’s website advises that anybody can report suspected corrupt conduct. People do not need proof, they just need sufficient reason to believe that the conduct has occurred. Information can be provided to the CCC with or without a statutory declaration. Anonymous complaints will be considered but the CCC says that “anonymous submissions without detailed information may be more difficult to investigate.”
Referring a matter to the CCC, without providing evidence of criminal activity could be regarded as a frivolous complaint. Section 216 of the Crime and Corruption Act prescribes a penalty of up to one years imprisonment for people who repeatedly make frivolous complaints.
What did the Mayor say to the CCC?
We don’t know exactly what information the Mayor included in her self referral to the CCC but we do know that it didn’t take the CCC very long to decide that the referral lacked substance. According to the Brisbane Times, the CCC confirmed on Tuesday morning it had “assessed” the allegations and it considered the matter closed. The CCC advised the Brisbane Times that:
“The CCC only has the power to investigate a matter if it has a suspicion that corrupt conduct has occurred.
“The CCC determined that the information the Mayor provided did not raise a suspicion of corrupt conduct.
“On that basis, the CCC has determined not to investigate the allegations.”
Dealing with the criticism
Instead of complaining about criticism of her, and using Council and CCC resources inappropriately to try and shut it down, the Mayor should focus on serving the public interest with greater transparency. Then, maybe, there would be less criticism.
Redlands2030 – 30 September 2015
Update 4 October: The section about complaints was updated to clarify which councillors were the subject of complaints which were found to have some substance.