• VCAT

February 17, 2020

Entire City of Casey Council sacked against a backdrop of controversial town planning approvals

The Andrews Government made a decision at a cabinet meeting on 17th Feb to sack the entire City of Casey Council amid controversial town planning decisions. Legislation is expected to pass by both houses of State Parliament. An interim administrator would be appointed to the council until 2024, the next eligible election for the council.

For months the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission has been examining council decisions related to property development and town planning in the City of Casey as part of Operation Sandon. It heard property developer John Woodman allegedly paid at least $1.2 million in bribes to former Casey mayors Sam Aziz and Geoff Ablett in a bid to win planning approvals for his clients.

Former mayor Sam Aziz, who is in Egypt on extended paid leave from his councillor position, allegedly received more than $900,000 from Mr Woodman. Councillor Geoff Ablett, a Hawthorn premiership player and brother of AFL legend Gary Ablett Snr, is accused of receiving more than $330,000. Former state Liberal MP Lorraine Wreford was hired by Mr Woodman as a lobbyist, and has been accused of delivering bags of cash to the councillors.

The investigation into Casey by IBAC has sparked internal reviews at Mornington Peninsula ShireCity of Kingston CouncilWhittlesea council and Frankston Council to look into its own town planning decisions and approvals.

Mornington Peninsula Shire

Mornington Peninsula Shire mayor Sam Hearn said the council would conduct a review of planning applications and decisions. He noted the review could also examine decisions made by past state planning ministers.

“We want to show that we are here for the good of the whole community, not a small sector of property developers,” he said. “Even if that means going back and exposing historical situations and occurrences that weren’t up to standard.” The town planning approvals process is heavily politicised and the scandal engulfing Casey is causing a number of councils throughout the state to examine the town planning approvals process for large developments, rezoning and subdivisions.

Whittlesea Council

Whittlesea council will audit all applications and approvals of commercial and retail developments and residential developments comprising more than five dwellings that have been submitted to the council over the past five years. The probity audit will be carried out by the council’s audit and risk committee.

Whittlesea councillors have asked for the audit and risk committee to list any developments with which a number of individuals who have been named in the IBAC hearings were involved. Councillors have requested a list detailing the date of the development application and approval; what rezoning or planning permit application was involved in the development; and the names of lobbyists, town planners, property developers, landowners or other individuals who made representations to the council about the developments.

If needed, the council will seek advice about referring the committee’s findings to IBAC. Cr Lawrie Cox said the audit was necessary because the council was aware of a company named in the IBAC hearings being involved in developments in Whittlesea. “This is about making sure things are above board, and if not, giving them to IBAC to be cleared up. We need to get ahead of the problem rather than sit back and let it steamroll.” he said.

Kingston Council

Kingston council also commenced special audit of all development approvals from the past 15 years. The Kingston audit will also probe four specific projects in Kingston since 2004. Ms Wreford, who the IBAC hearings revealed had handed envelopes stuffed with cash to Casey councillor Sam Aziz, was from 2010 to 2014 the state MP for Mordialloc – a seat that is almost entirely within the City of Kingston.

Former Defence land in Mentone, which was once used as parkland and known as Chicquita Park but later redeveloped as housing, will be analysed in Kingston’s audit, as will the Waterways estate, a project on a low-lying floodplain that Mr Woodman was key to developing. The Kingston probe will also look into a Chelsea Heights rezoning mentioned in passing by witnesses at the IBAC hearings.

The anti-corruption commission is investigating allegations that Mr Woodman, a multimillionaire developer and planner, used Mr Staindl to gain direct access to state Labor MPs over his rezoning applications. Mr Staindl, who will give evidence to IBAC this year, also lists among his clients Alex Fraser Group – Recycling. Mr Staindl has been advising the company on its political strategy over a controversial glass and concrete crushing facility it has on land in Clarinda that is zoned green wedge.

A million tonnes of glass and building rubble are recycled at the site each year, and the company has been lobbying since Labor approved the recycling facility in 2008 to be allowed to stay indefinitely. Council officers have recommended against it.

Kingston councillor Rosemary West successfully pushed to audit projects involving Mr Woodman and others. She said the recycling company’s application should be viewed with scepticism. Given the revelations at IBAC about potential corruption involving lobbyists with close links to the Labor and Liberal parties in planning applications, particularly on land zoned “green wedge”, she said it was crucial Mr Staindl’s role in that application was made public.

“I hope this enables us to learn what other developments were driven by these individuals, and what they may have done to persuade the council and perhaps the state government to support inappropriate developments, particularly in the green wedge,” Cr West said.

Frankston Council

Frankston Council is also looking into whether developers embroiled in the IBAC investigation into alleged corruption at Casey Council have lodged applications in Frankston. The report will detail “whether any of the property developers or named actors have had applications lodged in Frankston or have had representations made to Frankston City Council, what increased processes Frankston City Council could implement to ensure that the allegations vis-a-vis Casey City Council do not occur at Frankston City Council, and what additional future processes (if any) will Frankston City Council consider to further strengthen and protect its planning decisions.” 

Councillors also ordered that “a stocktake of planning decisions – recent (previous 5 years) and current – be considered as part of council’s next internal audit.” The move comes after a similar move by Kingston councillors, who agreed to take a closer look at applications approved by council that may have involved parties subject to the IBAC investigation.

IBAC Second Phase

IBAC commissioner Robert Redlich said the second phase of Operation Sandon would go beyond what happened in Casey Council. “[In 2020], IBAC will also continue to explore whether the use of professional lobbyists or planning consultants to lobby government at all levels has resulted in undue influence over planning and property development decision making within Victoria,” he said in a statement.

Among the IBAC inquiry’s stated goals is to take a very close look at the transparency and integrity of planning and property development decision-making within Victoria, including donations to political candidates that may result in possible corruption. It will also focus in on whether the use of professional lobbyists or planning consultants to lobby governments has resulted in undue influence over those making the decisions.