Internal Planning Review - Executive Summary
In November 2019, the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission commenced Operation Sandon into allegations of corruption in local government planning and property development decisions at the City of Casey. The Investigation identified three companies, Watsons Pty Ltd, Wolfdene Built Pty Ltd and Schutz Consulting Pty Ltd, as being involved in relevant planning applications and activity.
Given that development activity from each of the named companies had occurred on the Mornington Peninsula Shire, Council resolved on 28 January 2020 to undertake and internal review into planning decisions made by the Council and Council officers. The purpose behind the internal review was to determine if there was any reasonable suspicion of corrupt conduct that would require a referral to the IBAC.
The resolution determined to review all planning decisions including secondary consents, rezoning of land use and planning scheme amendments; to consider all historical and current applications made by the companies, with particular emphasis on the Martha Cove development; review all relevant electoral donations, review all relevant conflicts of interest; review all gifts, benefits and hospitality made to Councillors or Council Officers; and to make any relevant disclosures or notifications to external agencies.
Further, the Council resolved that a probity advisor be engaged to ensure good governance over the internal review process.
In February 2020, the Head of Governance and Legal began and led the independent review. A Terms of Reference outlining the methodology of the review was drafted and reviewed by Council’s appointed probity advisor. Appropriate amendments were made, and the Terms of Reference has guided Council’s review of the planning decisions.
Information was requested from the relevant departments within Council for review by the Head of Governance and Legal. In accordance with the resolution, an external independent review into the Martha Cove development was undertaken by external legal providers.
This report outlines and details those matters identified by the resolution and reviewed in accordance with the Terms of Reference. In summary:
A. The review spanned approximately 20 years of Council decision making and 6 different administrations.
B. There were over 60 decisions made in the Council Chambers in relation to applications and requests made by the companies.
C. There were over 572 decisions made by Council Officers under delegation in relation to applications made by the companies.
D. There were 22 strategic planning projects adopted by Council from 2006 onwards.
E. There have been 25 Planning Scheme Amendments from 1985 to the present.
F. Reviews were undertaken of Returns of Interest for all Councillors in the current term.
G. Reviews were undertaken of Electoral Donations for all Councillors from 2005 to the present.
H. Reviews were undertaken of Council’s Gifts, Benefits and Hospitality Registers for Councillors and Officers from 2005 to present.
I. Reviews were undertaken of Council’s Conflict of Interest Registers from 2009 to the present.
The review of planning decisions was undertaken not on the assessment of the merits of each decision, but on whether the nature of the records disclose any unusual, inconsistent, inappropriate or questionable conduct. This is consistent with Operation Sandon which commenced with the statement that:
‘…we here are not concerned with whether or not any particular council vote or proposed development or amendment was objectively correct or was otherwise justified. In respect of every planning issue there will always be two sides. There will be good reasons why either view might be said to benefit the community.
Further the review acknowledged that given the historical and wide-reaching scope of the review, that not all documents may be discoverable and that there would be some documentary limitations.
The review did not identify any activity, patterns of decision making or other actions that would suggest that there is any evidence of corruption in the decision making of Councillors or Council Officers.
Under section 57A of the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Act 2011, the Chief Executive Officer of a local government must notify IBAC of any matter they suspect on reasonable grounds involves corrupt conduct. Under the Act, corrupt conduct is defined as conduct, or attempt to engage in conduct that:
- Adversely affects the honest performance of the functions of a public officer or public body.
- Constitutes or involves the dishonest performance of the functions of a public officer or public body.
- Constitutes or involves knowingly or recklessly breaching the public trust.
- Involves the misuse of information or material acquired in the course of the performance of the functions of a public officer or public body.
- Is intended to adversely affect the effective performance of the function or powers of a public officer or public body and results in the person or their associate obtaining a specified benefit.
To ‘suspect on reasonable grounds’ means there is a real possibility of corrupt conduct. On review of all the matters and the information, the Chief Executive Officer has not formed a reasonable suspicion that corrupt conduct occurred in relation to Councillor or Council Officer decision making in relation to planning applications made by the named companies.
Accordingly, the Chief Executive Officer considers that the Internal Review has been finalised in accordance with the Terms of Reference and the Council Resolution.
However, the Chief Executive Officer also notes that Operation Sandon has been suspended as a result of the pandemic. Accordingly, Council’s internal review will remain open such that any further developments from Operation Sandon can be addressed in due course.