Secret deals and censure motions

Labor and Liberal councillors will likely vote for a politically motivated censure motion against Greens Councillor Max Phillips at Tuesday night’s Marrickville Council meeting.  The censure motion is being moved because Cr Phillips informed the public of a proposal for a ‘voluntary planning agreement’ (VPA) from developer Meriton that offer Council $5 million for going from 10 to 20 storeys at the Lewisham Towers development.

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At the March Council meeting, Mayor Macri and Labor and Liberal Councillors demanded that Cr Phillips apologise to Council and Meriton for making the information public.  Councillor Phillips refused, saying he had acted ethically at all times and it was Council who erred in trying to keep the VPA secret.

“You should never apologise for being honest.  I acted ethically and will wear the censure from Labor and Liberal as a badge of honour!” said Cr Phillips.

“Major planning decisions should be conducted in an open, public and transparent manner.  It’s an absolute disgrace that Labor, Liberal and Mayor Macri want to keep the public in the dark about major planning decisions being contemplated by their Council,” he said.

Late last year developer of the Lewisham Towers site, Meriton, approached Marrickville Council with an offer of $5 million in return for increasing density and heights for the Lewisham Towers development as part of a VPA.

Meriton boss Harry Triguboff initially met with the Mayor of Marrickville, Victor Macri in the mayoral office.  On the 27 November, a briefing was held with all councillors where Meriton outlined a proposed VPA.  The essence of the offer was significantly increased densities, and the height of one of the buildings to change from 10 to 20 storeys.  In return Council would receive $5 million.

The Lewisham Towers development has been controversial for the last 4 years.  Initially proposed was 14 storey towers and a supermarket mall.  A community group ‘No Lewisham Towers’ was formed to oppose this overdevelopment and the Greens Councillors moved for Council to commission a master plan for the precinct to ensure orderly and appropriate development.

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The master plan recommended much smaller heights and only a small amount of retail space for the site.  Since the master plan was produced, the developers of the site had gradually reduced the scale of their plans, until Meriton came along with their proposed VPA.

On the evening of Friday 7 December, Councillors were given a supplementary business paper for the Council meeting on Tuesday 11 December.  The item was relating to a decision on whether or not to enter into negotiations on the Meriton VPA.

Surprisingly the item was deemed confidential.  When questioned why it had been marked confidential, council staff said it was because Meriton had asked for it to be commercial in-confidence.

The Greens Councillors questioned the basis of the commercial in-confidence and why such a confidence would trump the importance of conducting planning decisions in open session?  An adequate answer was not provided.

Cr Phillips decided to inform local residents and the media about the proposed VPA, basing his information on the oral briefing held on the 27 November, on the basis that this briefing had not been deemed confidential.

The Sydney Morning Herald published an article entitled: Size does matter: council offered $5m to approve towers at double the height

That night at the council meeting, the public gallery was ejected, the doors closed and the Labor and Liberal Councillors proceeded to shout at Cr Phillips for informing the public about the general nature of the VPA being considered.

Some of the Councillors claimed by publicising the issue, Cr Phillips had “forced their hand”.  Mayor Macri yelled that Cr Phillips “was not the dictator, not God”.  These are strange comments and seem to indicate that some Councillors may have made a different decision if the issue was not public.

“Councillors should be prepared to stand by and defend their vote regardless of whether it is public knowledge or not.  Indeed the Local Government Act explicitly states that public embarrassment is not a valid reason to make something confidential,” said Cr Phillips.

After the shouting behind closed doors had subsided, Council voted unanimously to reject entering into negotiations with Meriton over the proposed VPA.

Five Councillors, who have decided to remain anonymous, then decided to lodge a code of conduct complaint against Cr Phillips.

An independent reviewer reviewed the issue and found that although the oral briefing on the 27th was not clearly deemed confidential, Cr Phillips had breached the code of conduct by speaking publicly about the issue.  You can read the entire report here (PDF).

At the March 2013 Council meeting, conservative independent Mayor Victor Macri moved to censure Cr Phillips, demand he apologise, and to escalate the issue by referring it to the Department of Local Government.  Of the ten Councillors present at the meeting, five – including the four Greens and Independent Morris Hanna, voted against, while the Labor and Liberal Councillors voted for the motion.  The Mayor was forced to use his casting vote to pass the motion.

On 16 April 2013, the formal censure motion will be debated at the Marrickville Council meeting.

Meanwhile, Cr Phillips brought a notice of motion for Council to draft a policy in how to deal with VPA proposals.  The proposal was for Council to adopt a position of dealing with VPA proposals in an open and transparent way, and to provide a public justification for any information deemed confidential.  Unfortunately Labor and Liberal Councillors present rejected this notice of motion.

“There have been three different VPA approaches to Marrickville Council in the past few months, yet residents are being kept in the dark.  There is a new arrogance of power at Marrickville Council that is of great concern,” said Cr Phillips.

Read Councillor Phillips’ letter to Lewisham residents on the matter (PDF).

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