19 March 2020
A Bundaberg Regional councillor has been cleared of misconduct amid allegations he misused council information, and misled council about the mayor’s relationship with a property developer.
At a council meeting in September 2018, the councillor raised concerns that the mayor had a conflict of interest in relation to a development application, stating that he was in possession of a letter that indicated the mayor was “good friends” with the applicant.
The Councillor Conduct Tribunal heard the councillor produced an unsigned letter and said he was advised the document had been sent.
It heard the councillor had been given the letter which referred to the mayor’s friendship with the developer when he asked for some examples of a letter of introduction in May 2017 so he could draft one.
In February 2018, the council CEO emailed the councillor the final version of the letter, which was signed by the mayor, had a different addressee, and did not contain the words “good friends with” the developer.
It was alleged that seven months after receiving the updated document, the councillor produced a form of the letter that he knew was not the final version at an ordinary council meeting, and suggested the mayor had a conflict of interest in the development decision.
When asked whether he had received any other letters pertaining to the matter, the councillor replied “no”, but added the onus was on the mayor to advise the meeting if he knew the letter being presented had never been sent.
The mayor declined to do so but denied any personal interest.
A subsequent investigation by the Office of the Independent Assessor (OIA) found the mayor held no conflict of interest in the matter.
The tribunal found that the councillor had not engaged in misconduct as he was complying with a positive duty placed on councillors under the Local Government Act to report a belief or suspicion about another councillor’s conflict of interest, as the draft letter had indicated some form of relationship between the mayor and the developer and that this could be said to raise a suspicion.
The tribunal also dismissed a second misconduct allegation against the same councillor over claims he misused information acquired through his role to facilitate the purchase of equipment by a company in which he held shares.
About 9am on 18 May 2018 the councillor was mistakenly sent a draft newsletter that was due to be made public that afternoon, outlining a plan to demolish the Coral Cove Wastewater Treatment Plant.
Approximately 20 minutes later, the councillor phoned the council officer listed as the contact person for the project, requesting more details about the demolition, including the name of the contractor.
The councillor then contacted a company in which he held shares and a fellow shareholder, with all three phone calls taking place by 9:30am. Information about the demolition project was made public later that day.
In June 2018 the company, in which the councillor is a shareholder, purchased equipment from the demolition site in June 2018, prompting the allegation that the councillor had misused information for the benefit of himself or another party.
In dismissing the allegation, the tribunal noted the demolition was announced on the council’s website on the same day the councillor received the email newsletter, and it was possible for any member of the public to have made enquiries about the project.
The tribunal also found the company, in which the councillor holds shares, purchased equipment from the site 19 days after the demolition was announced, again noting there was sufficient time for members of the public to have engaged with the demolition company.
The Councillor Conduct Tribunal decision can be found here.
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