By Brendan Rees
Casey councillors will no longer determine planning matters as they give up their rights to vote on planning applications in the wake of the IBAC corruption investigations.
At an extraordinary special meeting on New Year’s eve, councillors voted to establish a new Special Planning Committee and therefore relinquish their planning decision rights.
It comes as the IBAC Operation Sandon inquiry alleged dirty deals at Casey Council in relation to planning and property development decisions.
The Special Committee will include two independent members whose appointments will be considered at council’s meeting on 21 January. However, councillors voted to have Cr Rex Flannery as the only councillor to act as council’s delegate on the committee.
Only seven of the 11 elected councillors attended the meeting as it seeks to “provide community assurance in the integrity of decision making”.
Mayor Susan Serey said the Special Committee, which would be established under the Local Government Act 1989, will have delegated decision-making authority under the Planning and Environment Act to deal with about four per cent of planning applications. The majority of other planning applications will continue to be decided by council officers under delegated authority.
“It will not replace our role as councillors or take away the community’s voice,” she said.
“This enables council to fulfil its obligations as a responsible authority in a timely fashion, protects applicant and objector rights and protects the integrity of decisions being made whilst the IBAC investigations are underway.
“Residents will still be able to approach their ward councillors or Cr Flannery should they have concerns around specific planning applications, which will be provided to the Special Committee. The right to object to VCAT for applicants and objectors means no one’s voice or rights are silenced.
“We need to ensure that we are meeting our obligations around planning applications being considered in a timely matter and are being processed in the quickest possible way, which the Special Committee will allow us to do,” Cr Serey said.
It is anticipated that the Special Committee will meet monthly, starting in February 2020. Meetings of the Special Committee would be open to the public.
Cr Rosalie Crestani was the only councillor who opposed the new committee.
“I believe all elected leaders have a right to speak as representatives for the people and my heart is to avoid causing offence in doing so,” Cr Crestani said in a Facebook post.
Casey Residents and Ratepayers Association spokesman Brendan Browne said the Special Committee was a “poor substitute for a properly functioning council.”
“We now have an absurd situation where public confidence is so low, that council is voting to remove 10 Councillors from planning decisions,” he said.
“At the same time they are trying to convince us that they are doing their jobs.
“The only workable solution is for the State Government to dismiss the Council. We need administrators to start cleaning up the mess as soon as possible,” Mr Browne said.
A spokeswoman of the Save the Casey Foothills Association, Rosalie Counsell, said council’s motion to surrender councillors’ right to vote on planning applications was “far from ideal”.
“Who proposed a takeover in the first place? And why did Casey’s governance department recommend forming a committee with no details regarding size, make up, qualifications, transparency, powers, financial arrangements, checks and balances, or community input ramifications,” she said.
“The blatancy of this suspect move serves only to illustrate the urgency of government intervention,” she said.
Casey ratepayer Rita Menheere said the new committee had all the “hallmarks of a process designed to pull the wool over our eyes and keep control of the corrupted planning process.”
“We have to call it out … the majority of wayward councillors get to decide everything about this committee, and can abandon it at any time if its members start making ‘unwanted’ decisions,” she said.
Meanwhile, Casey’s manager of governance Holly De Kretser confirmed an incident whereby faeces had been mailed to one councillor.
Cr Sam Aziz’s whereabouts is also still unknown. He flew to Egypt late last year prior to the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission hearings being held which alleged Cr Aziz pocketed $900,000 from property developers.
Cr Aziz and Cr Geoff Ablett currently remain elected councillors and continue to receive a councillor allowance.
Ms De Kretser said the approved leave of absence for Cr Aziz and Cr Ablett ended on 31 December and the next opportunity for the pair to apply for further leave will be at council’s meeting on 21 January.