Expensive cup of coffee could land mayor in jail
Mayor's Desk- Margaret Strelow
THESE are interesting times in Australia - indeed in the western world.
We have watched public boards, major institutions and governments implode.
I can understand the pressure cooker of leadership while under intense public scrutiny as well as the frustration that many in the community feel as they watch.
And the stories about some (mainly Southeast) Queensland councils have left us all in disbelief.
The State Government's response to the investigations into these local governments has led to changes in local government legislation which we refer to by the 'shorthand' title of 'Belcarra.'
Belcarra will see a very significant tightening of existing rules and a formalisation of the way that we disclose gifts or benefits. How this works out at council meetings is still a little bit clunky.
(It's times like this that I am pleased that I've never accepted donations from business or from developers in my election campaigns!)
During council meetings you will see councillors declare that they can't vote on one matter or another because of perceived or real conflict of interest.
We've had members leave the room because they are members of the Frenchville Sporting Club, or because they are parishioners of that particular Catholic church, or because their family business has done work for a parish for 28 years.
The remaining councillors then are usually asked to vote to decide if that councillor who left the room should be allowed to return to vote on the question at hand. The matters in these cases were about pedestrian crossings, lease renewals, and sponsorship.
It can seem quite silly to those who are watching.
Of course, sometimes the matters are much more substantial and there is a real material personal interest, and clearly and without any dispute, councillors know they are to leave. They always have done.
This is where perhaps a developer or business person had given a donation to the councillor directly or to his or her team.
Or, where the matter that is being discussed could either add or take away value from a councillor's assets or property. Or, that of their immediate family. So, building approvals for nearby property or tenders where a family business is involved etc.
But it is a more recent interpretation that has left us all erring on the side of caution.
You may have noticed that councillors are hesitating about invitations that we may previously have accepted.
For my own part, it's things like attending school musicals which are now declared as gifts. This leaves me with a potential conflict if a matter about that school or its immediate surroundings comes to the council table. And it seems from our legal advice that that potential conflict never goes away. It will have to be declared every time that a relevant matter comes to the council table for the rest of the councillor's political career.
Recent legal advice has also confirmed that even a single cup of coffee could be deemed to be a gift.
There is still some debate as to whether being the guest speaker at an event may negate the 'gift'.
Southern newspapers carried a recent story where the Lord Mayor of Brisbane was the guest speaker at a major property group lunch. Excepting he didn't eat lunch or even have a cup of coffee because of uncertainty around the new rules.
My usual practice has been that if am meeting someone for coffee or lunch, I will personally cover the bill for both of us. It's just safer.
But in a relatively small city where the chair of a charity is often also an investor or business owner, it will become even more important for councillors to be cautious. If there is an outstanding development application before council I won't meet with an applicant to discuss the matter without an officer present- this has always been my practice.
If you see me at a major event, usually I've purchased the ticket myself. Especially where the event is a fundraiser even if free tickets were offered. Sometimes, such as the Bowen Basin Mining Club lunches, council pays for the ticket because there is a benefit to the community in my attending. At the recent Food and Wine events, Darryl and I purchased our own tickets.
However what has been practice and common sense for councillors has now become a much more serious matter.
With the new legislation all councillors will be wary of accepting gifts.
If the courts determine that you knowingly voted on a matter in which you have a material interest then the penalties are high, as they should be.
But woe to councillors if they make even an innocent mistake!
The penalty for 'inadvertently voting' on a matter in which you have a 'material interest' is up to a year in jail and an $80,000 fine.
So thank you very much to those councillors in other centres who are rumoured to have accepted small boats and resort holidays as gifts! We are now tied up with a whole lot of risk, uncertainty and red tape.