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Melbourne councillors consistently compromised by developer donations

13 Aug 2015

Melbourne councillors consistently compromised by developer donations Image

City of Melbourne councillors were unable to assess a planning application at Northbank last month because too many of them had received election campaign donations from the developer.

The Asset 1 WTC and HANZ proposal for the former Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre site was listed for consideration at the July 7 Future Melbourne Committee Meeting.

However, the quorum was lost when five councillors declared an indirect conflict of interest, having received election campaign donations from Asset 1.

The matter was just one of three planning applications that Councillors were unable to consider at the meeting due to conflicts of interest over election campaign donations.

It’s not the first time councillors have been unable to reach quorum due to conflicts of interest relating to election donations.

The council was unable to consider two different Central Equity proposals for Balston St and Kavanagh St in Southbank in December 2014 and May this year.

And in May, Minister for Local Government, Natalie Hutchins gave six councillors an exemption to vote on its Melbourne Open Space Strategy, after they were unable to vote due to conflicts of interest over campaign donations.

Cr Rohan Leppert estimated there had been at least 10 incidents of failing to reach quorum on planning matters due to conflicts of interest.

Lord Mayor Robert Doyle, Deputy Lord Mayor Susan Riley, Cr Arron Wood, Cr Kevin Louey and Cr Ken Ong all declared indirect conflicts of interest over the Northbank application.

As a result council officers will now provide a recommendation on the application to Planning Minister Richard Wynne under delegation.

Council officer’s report to the Future Melbourne Committee recommended supporting the proposal, subject to almost 11 pages of conditions.

Councillor Kevin Louey said by declaring conflicts councillors avoided any issues of bias. “It (accepting donations) is allowable and it was declared as per the legislation,” Cr Louey said.

Cr Louey said the failure to reach quorum didn’t stifle public debate around planning matters because written submissions were still accepted and taken into account by planning officers who would make the recommendation under delegation.

The quorum was also lost at the July 7 meeting in relation to two CBD planning applications due to indirect conflicts of interest.

Cr Doyle, Cr Riley, Cr Wood and Cr Louey declared indirect conflicts of interests because a company employed by the owner of the subject properties had made election campaign donations to Team Doyle.

Cr Rohan Leppert said he felt frustrated every time the council was unable to reach quorum due to conflicts of interest over donations.

“It stops us from being able to express an opinion, even as councillors without a conflict,” he said.

“We’re unable to fulfil the duties we were elected to fulfil.”

Cr Leppert said none of the conflicted councillors had done anything wrong and, in his opinion, it was the Act itself that needed to change.

According to Cr Leppert, Victoria should follow NSW’s lead and ban developer donations altogether.

“If the State Government needs proof of why the Act needs to change then this is the perfect example,” he said.

However, Cr Stephen Mayne said it was “not the end of the world” when quorum wasn’t reached on planning matters where council isn’t the responsible authority, as was the case at the July 7 meeting.

“It’s far better to have a good conflict of interest regime than to have councillors voting on donor matters,” Cr Mayne said.

According to Cr Mayne, the fact a quorum wasn’t achieved at the July 7 meeting “hasn’t stopped the wheels of government or stopped the process of council”.

He said the outcome would have been the same in terms of the recommendation made to the planning minister whether a quorum had been reached or not, as 99 per cent of the time councillors agree with officer recommendations.

Cr Stephen Mayne said while he agreed it would be better if developer donations were banned, criminalising donations from one category would be difficult and had caused issues in NSW.

Cr Mayne noted that quorum would have been achieved for the two CBD applications had Cr Foster not been overseas at the time.

The Northbank planning application related to plans to construct a residential precinct at the corner of Spencer and Flinders streets at North Wharf.

Asset 1 WTC and Hanz’s application proposes two 20-storey residential towers joined by a podium and a 26-storey tower. The shorter of the towers would be situated closer to the river, while the taller tower would be closer to Flinders St.

The towers would accommodate 1076 apartments, 1278sqm of ground floor retail space and 447 car parks.

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