Herald Sun - Casey Council is useless and must go now

My Opinion Pieces
February 16, 2020

The City of Casey is the most populated local government area in Victoria with total revenues exceeding half a billion dollars a year. With more than 340,000 residents, it’s one of the fastest growing regions in Australia.

But all is not well at Casey’s council. Through Operation Sandon, Victoria’s anti-corruption commission has alleged some former and sitting councillors have engaged in corrupt conduct. In recent weeks my inbox has been filled by emails from Casey ratepayers, desperate to be rid of what is being called a “circus” — their local government.

One Casey ratepayer said residents have “a real sense of distrust and hopelessness … within the democratic process and decision making”.

Another ratepayer, Brendan Browne, secretary of the Casey Residents’ and Ratepayers’ Association, said the council “needs to be sacked as soon as possible. The current situation isn’t in the interests of ratepayers”.

What is Daniel Andrews waiting for? I’ve been calling for Casey City Council to be sacked since December. The Premier must introduce legislation this week to sack the council.

So far, the only direct action is the appointment of a municipal monitor to report on governance at the council. But I don’t think too many Casey residents would need to read Laurinda Gardner’s report to know this council must go.

The anti-corruption commission will continue its public hearings into Casey in March, having alleged Cr Aziz received more than a million dollars in bribes, much of which was allegedly received in cash-filled suitcases. While IBAC might find the council dysfunctional, and “reeking of corruption”, it is the Local Government Minister’s decision, on advice from the municipal monitor, that begins the process to dismiss a council. Only by an act of Parliament can a council be sacked. We’ve indicated support from across the chamber, so what is this Labor Government waiting for?

Former Mayor Sam Aziz has been holed up in Cairo since late last year, dodging questions from the anti-corruption commission about alleged bribes he received from developer John Woodman.

During this time, he has not represented his ward, not attended council meetings or done anything to assist the Casey ratepayers who elected him and pay him his allowance. Worse still, recently the councillors agreed to extend Aziz’s paid leave, citing legal concerns as a reason for not refusing his outrageous request.

Unfortunately, allegedly accepting unreported donations from John Woodman is not exclusive to Cr Aziz at Casey — other councillors have also allegedly benefited from Woodman’s largesse.

On New Year’s Eve 2019, Casey City Council met and voted to delegate their decision-making authority under the Planning and Environment Act to a separate committee. The planning powers delegated to local government from state government are significant and sitting in a quasijudicial fashion on planning matters is, frankly, the most important regular task of big metropolitan councils.

The fact these councillors don’t believe they should make planning decisions while the corruption investigation continues indicates how bad things are at Casey.

Daniel Andrews has his own questions to answer, particularly his longstanding relationship with Woodman. Also, his government is refusing almost every Freedom of Information request on what his current and former MPs and ministers have said to, or promised, Woodman with regards to a controversial land rezoning known as C219.

Planning Minister Dick Wynne, who met with Woodman at an ALP fundraiser in 2018, is refusing to hand over 700 pages of FOI documents relating to this rezoning. This is the rezoning Woodman was keen to have the Casey Councillors approve, that would, and still could, make him millions.

Wynne still hasn’t refused this tainted planning amendment. Casey isn’t the only council under the spotlight. Whittlesea Council has gone through several CEOs in the past three years. The Minister for Local Government appointed a monitor late last year until June to assess the governance of that council.

Simon Overland was sacked as CEO in December. His replacement, Ken Spiller, has said he too will leave the council, merely three months after being appointed. What is going on?

Changes to the Local Government Act are being debated in state parliament this week. Last year the Opposition proposed a ban on local councils spending ratepayers’ money on political advocacy and campaigns for which they have no jurisdiction. Labor refused to support our plans. Let’s hope over the summer break they have had a change of heart. Let’s hope they also introduce a Bill to sack Casey and Whittlesea councils.

The people of Casey and Whittlesea deserve better and this state government must back up its words with action.