Having elected a Council with a majority sympathetic to responsible management of our green wedge shire, we anticipated that steps would be taken to immediately set to work addressing  carried over problems and reversing the damage done to the Council organization.

After eight months, the difficulty and the challenge confronting the new councillors and hence the new Council is becoming clear. Damage continues to be done, clearly at variance with majority views on Council.

Former mayor Peter Clarke’s signal achievement was the installation of a CEO and a planning department which was unable or unwilling to uphold the planning scheme. Highest profile failure was the Chapel Lane fill-dumping. It was only stopped after community uproar, two years late and after thousands of tonnes of fill had been dumped in the green wedge. Whether the failure was deliberate policy or caused by laziness or incompetence, the result was costly for the green wedge, Council finances and the amenity of affected residents.

The Chapel Lane debacle is historical but the Bannons Lane restaurant proposal is not. The previous Council inappropriately granted a permit for a 150 seat restaurant in the green wedge at Yarrambat, based on the transparent pretext  that it was ‘in conjunction’ with agriculture – agriculture being sixty two olive trees which are yet to be planted!

VCAT is about to hear an appeal against the Council’s decision from affected residents, and we trust VCAT will do its job and uphold the appeal. But if they do it will be no thanks to council’s planning department  which continues to support the proposal, despite it being crystal clear that, not only does the proposal violate the planning scheme, it is no longer supported by a majority of our Councillors. Incredibly, officers are planning to spend our money on  legal representation to support  the case for the restaurant at the Tribunal!

All the while the CEO claims there’s no money.

Aside from new mayor Peter Perkins and former mayor Karen Egan, all of the other councillors are first timers, and so would have been heavily occupied in getting  to grips with the major task  of what being a councillor involves. However, life moves on and decisions need to be made that will stamp the new council’s authority on future council directions.

For instruction on how councillors can make a difference there is no better tutorial than the conduct of former Mayor Peter Clarke, who used his procedural skills to cull the council organization, and particularly the planning department. But first, some background.

Anti-regulation lobby group PALS employed a noisy misinformation campaign about two amendments proposed by the 2012 Council as the basis of their campaign to have their candidates elected in 2016. Hardly anyone knew what the amendments actually contained, but the numbers ‘C81’ and ‘C101’ were presented as codes representing a threat to life as we know it. In fact these amendments, while significant, were routine. C101 was but the latest step in a long running project to update the Environment Significance Overlays across the Shire. Years of work had informed it, it was subject to public comment and particular issues with mapping were resolved in an orderly process. But a noisy group of self-interested landowners began organizing to obstruct it. Their organization resulted in crowd-threatening violence at the special Council  committee meeting convened specifically to approve sending the amendment to a Planning Panel, the proper process when there are community objections to a Planning Scheme amendment. But so intimidating was the behaviour of the crowd at this meeting, of the ‘Policy and Services Committee’ meeting held on 13 April 2016, that a majority of the councillors took fright, and voted not only not to send C101 to a Planning Panel, but to abandon it entirely!

Subsequently the Council recovered its wits and at the following ordinary Council meeting decided that the Policy and Services Committee had exceeded its authority when it abandoned C101, and voted to rescind the abandonment. Council subsequently commissioned legal advice which supported this action.

Shortly after the unfortunate, rowdy meeting Karen Egan, former Mayor and current Bunjil Councillor, formed the PALS lobby group, giving a Facebook presence to the noisy mob.

Some months later PALS took a QC to VCAT, claiming that the abandonment of C101 in April was legal and should stand. And VCAT agreed! Furthermore, PALS claimed that, since C101 had been legally abandoned, that the Council had erred in not informing the Minister of this. Remember that Council had rescinded the abandonment, and had legal advice supporting the rescission. But VCAT agreed with this too!

This is all water under the bridge, of course, but it was the starting point for the gutting of the Council organization.

The pro-development Clarke, with his faithful ally Cr Ranken, made common cause with the PALS councillors Egan and Ashton to form a voting bloc of four on Council. At the very first meeting of the new Council the key item on the agenda was a report on the two amendments, obviously orchestrated  by Clarke. A flurry of motions followed:

[that Council] Undertakes an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the failure of Council to notify the Minister for Planning of the abandonment of Planning Scheme Amendment C101 at the Special Meeting of Council’s Policy and Services Committee held on 13 April 2016.

This was disingenuous, purely a tactic. Everyone understood the circumstances. The meeting in April was the one threatened with violence by pre-PALS thugs. This was nothing more than a ruse to get a consultant in. Next:

[that Council]  Appoints Mr Christopher Wren QC as independent investigator to undertake this investigation and request that he reports directly to Council via the Mayor with all contact with Mr Wren to be through the Mayor or Council’s solicitors Hunt & Hunt.

So, note that Council specifies who will do the investigation, and cuts Council officers out of the loop, with reporting being back to the Mayor, not to the CEO.

Terms of reference are extensive and broad, encouraging the consultant to go for broke, and quickly. They include:

In order to ensure that high standards of governance are maintained, advises Council what action Council should take or procedures it should implement as a result of this investigation

This is typical wording: it’s supposed to be about ‘high standards of governance’, when in fact it’s about attacking the organization.

The QC duly completed his investigation, only the ‘executive summary’ of which was made public, but that doesn’t matter. It was not a substantial report, but it contained what was required:

the report also draws attention to complaints concerning the actions and culture within certain Council departments and suggests that these are matters the incoming CEO address

So, open slather for the new, hand-picked CEO. This was confirmed at a special council meeting held on February 22, 2017, at which an Egan /Ashton motion ‘Requests the Acting Chief Executive Officer to ..  Take the necessary actions to implement the findings of the issues raised.’

Nothing specific mentioned of course: leave it to the CEO and the Mayor.

The result was huge staff turnover, including the loss of all senior planning staff. Planning is of course a key function of Council, and proper assessments and decision making require expertise and a good knowledge of the planning scheme. As an indicator of the decline of the planning department, compare the treatment of two development applications, one at the beginning of the 2016 Council’s term, the other at the end.

The first concerned a dwelling proposed for a property in the RCZ in North Warrandyte, involving a football field-sized clearing on ridgeline. Council officers recommended that the application be rejected. This was not to the liking of Council, so they ‘called it in’ and reversed the decision, in favour of the developer. Following objections and community-driven legal processes at VCAT and the Supreme Court the development was thwarted, effectively validating the officers’ recommendation.

Four years later, none of the staff responsible for the correct, Pigeon Bank Road recommendation remain. Along comes an application for a 150 seat restaurant in the green wedge at Yarrambat. The Council had so changed the planning department that it saw its function to be the approval of development proposals, not the professional implementation of the planning scheme.

Eight months after the election we are still at the beginning of the road.