Former Canterbury demonstrates to ICAC why councillors should be removed from development assessment

Here we go again.  As if anyone needed it, the ICAC this time last week started to eviscerate the corpse of the former Canterbury Council and show why councillors should have nothing to do with development assessment.  Public hearings are examining planning decisions between 2013 and 2016, the activities of former Liberal Canterbury councillor Michael Hawatt and former ALP councillor Pierre Azzi, former GM Jim Montague, and the appointment of Spiro Stavis as Director of Planning.

It all hit the fan after the resignation of the highly regarded Marcello Occhiuzzi in late 2015, having had enough of aggressive pressure from the Hawatt/Azzi alliance and the GM wanting planning decisions that didn’t comply with the planning instruments.  The GM bowed to pressure from councillors and allowed the main players on the interview panel.  Montague’s evidence has been that the councillors tried to blackmail him, sack him at a Council meeting over Xmas/New Year, and bribe him with inducements of handsome retirement benefits and/or a continuing consulting role after the 2016 mergers, on his existing salary.
 
Former Mayor Bryan Robson gave evidence to the Commission of a meeting of ALP players where the former Premier Morris Iemma described Azzi as a “f---wit” , after Azzi had told him he had emailed the GM telling him he would be sacked if he didn’t keep Stavis in the job, and offered financial inducements.  Iemma had asked, “how stupid is he?”  Quite stupid, clearly.

The evidence reveals an obsession with development at all costs, rejecting of the recommendations of planning staff and producing the horror which is now Canterbury Road.

The Commission is also investigating decisions of Stavis as Planning Director.

It’s people like this lot that make it uncomfortable for decent human beings working for the public good in planning, building and environmental protection. 

It’s like living in a television satire of greedy and corrupt councillors, a manipulated GM, an inappropriate and biased recruitment process, all set amongst dreadful developments with additional floors, increases in floor space ratio, a questionable sale of land...

There are two big issues here for us. 

The first, is the legislative framework which allows senior staff to be employed on term contracts which can be terminated with no avenue of redress or review.  GMs, as we saw demonstrated graphically following the 2013 local government elections, can be sacked by a newly elected council without explanation, without recourse or review.  The GM is the most vulnerable of Council employees.
 
There are no employment protections for the GM and senior staff - being expressly excluded by section 340 of the Industrial Relations Act from access to the IRC.  The 1993 Local Government Act was based upon how things operated in the State but in recent years most SES positions have been transitioned from term appointments to permanent, and for those which aren’t, any decision by an Authority to sack “for any other reason” requires a written report from that Authority justifying the decision to the Public Service Commission.  This is a test Mid-Western would have failed in 2015 and the former Canterbury would have failed here.

The second is allowing elected councillors - unqualified, often incapable of being impartial and with a demonstrated propensity to look after mates - to be involved in any way with a development application.  We dealt with this in depaNews in July 2017 under the heading “Enough is enough - it’s time to cut councillors out of development assessment”.
 
By coincidence,  on the following day the NSW Government announced the removal of major developments from councils and place them in the hands of planning panels, claimed to be independent but invariably containing elected representatives who, as we have seen, do struggle to understand the big picture.

Something has to be done.

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