‘Flush it into the public domain’: Why so few councils publish interactions with developers

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Key points

  • Only four of 79 Victorian councils have a public register of interactions between councillors and developers.
  • There is no legal requirement for registers, but the Local Government Inspectorate has recommended councils implement them.
  • Some councils have voted against disclosure measures numerous times.
  • Advocates say councils should increase disclosure to rebuild public trust in councils after IBAC’s investigation into Casey council.

Only a handful of councils are publicly recording councillors’ meetings with developers, despite advice from a watchdog to do so, which must change to improve trust between local government and communities, according to some councillors and the peak body for councils.

The warning comes after the corruption watchdog’s bombshell report last month on allegations of corrupt conduct involving councillors and property developers in the City of Casey in Melbourne’s south-east.

Monash councillor Josh Fergeus has tried unsuccessfully to get a public register of councillor meetings with developers at his council.Credit: Joe Armao

The investigation found property developer John Woodman made payments totalling about $1.2 million to former Casey mayors and Liberal Party members Sam Aziz and Geoff Ablett – including cash payments in suitcases and shopping bags – in return for support for lucrative planning decisions. Woodman, Aziz, and Ablett all strongly deny any wrongdoing.

The Local Government Inspectorate – the watchdog for governance at local councils – began issuing advice to councils two years ago that they should create policies to guide councillor interactions with developers and maintain a public register of such interactions, although it is not a requirement under the Local Government Act. The advice came after the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Committee’s investigation began hearing damning evidence about the Casey saga.

But as it stands, only four out of 79 councils have moved to implement developer contact registers: Whitehorse, Merri-bek, Dandenong and Kingston. Between these councils, the registers are not uniform – some are opt-in, resulting in registers that have sat empty, and one will be tabled publicly only once every two years.

Meanwhile, members of other councils have tried to establish registers but have failed to get the number of votes required in the chamber.

At Monash Council in Melbourne’s east, Greens councillors have tried three times since 2019 to introduce motions seeking to establish a register of contact between councillors and developers, but failed to garner majority support from the councillor group.

In a fourth attempt last August, Councillor Josh Fergeus managed to convince his colleagues to attend a briefing with the inspectorate, but not to implement a register.

Fergeus said most councillors would not be transparent about meetings or phone calls with developers unless forced by law, and he believes that has harmed councils’ standing in the community.

“Having a register of councillor interactions with property developers isn’t just about cracking down on people doing the wrong thing, it’s about establishing community trust in councils,” he said.

“It is emblematic of councils doing the right thing and having an open dialogue with the community about how planning decisions are made.”

Although a large proportion of planning decisions are made by council officers under delegation without councillor input, Fergeus said “more months than not”, Monash councillors were approached by developers advocating for a certain planning outcome.

He said he has met with developers himself, with other councillors at group briefings, but declines such invitations now.

“I didn’t find them particularly useful. We get a detailed report by officers on submissions made by developers and when we get those, we get them with the benefit of expert analysis from our planners,” he said. “I’m a social worker – I’m going to rely on experts, not people with vested interests.”

Merri-bek Council in Melbourne’s inner north and Dandenong in Melbourne’s outer south-east voted to implement opt-in trials of registers in 2021 and 2022, respectively – both pushed by Greens councillors.

‘I’m a social worker – I’m going to rely on experts, not people with vested interests.’

But both have seen a lack of engagement: Dandenong has published no entries since it took effect in March last year, and Merri-bek has had just two contributions. It is unknown if the lack of contributions means there have been no meetings, or if meetings have not been disclosed.

Merri-bek councillors this week asked officers to consider tweaking the policy to ban developers from meeting with councillors at all – alone or as a group – whenever the public is not invited.

Kingston Council introduced a mandatory register in March 2022, but it is only tabled publicly every two years. City of Whitehorse last month adopted a register that will be available for public perusal on the council website and updated on a quarterly basis.

Port Phillip Council and Baw Baw Shire have both considered reports about registers in the past two years but did not implement them.

Merri-bek Council is considering whether to ban all meetings between developers and councillors when the public isn’t present.Credit: Joe Armao

IBAC’s Operation Sandon report recommended that statutory planning responsibilities be removed from councillors.

But how the government will respond to the recommendation is unclear, and there may still be a role for councillors in strategic planning or smaller projects.

Dandenong councillor Rhonda Garad, who pushed for Dandenong’s register, said the lack of uniformity on developer interaction rules was a failure of the state government.

“They had the opportunity to make these standard governance processes and they chose not to do that,” the Greens councillor said.

IBAC acting Commissioner Stephen Farrow (left) and Deputy Commissioner David Wolf. The watchdog has recommended an overhaul of council conduct and planning.Credit: Wayne Taylor

Garad said she was concerned loose practices would be weaponised as an excuse to push councils and local communities out of planning decisions.

“[The state government is] implicating the whole local government sector as being incompetent at best or corrupt at worse, when it was two or three councillors in one council and because there were not standardised levels of integrity baked into the act.”

A state government spokesman said councils were required to develop their own governance rules but that the government was “considering recommendations of Operation Sandon and will respond in due course.”

At a state level, the Labor and National parties have opposed a ban on donations from the property industry. The Centre for Public Integrity last year called for publication of the ministerial diaries of state MPs, as Queensland, NSW and the ACT does.

Council Watch, formerly known as Ratepayers Victoria, said councils did not need to wait for government reform to adopt registers.

“[Councillors] are still decision-makers for the foreseeable future, and they should lead the way on this,” said vice president Dean Hurlston.

“It would restore public image of councils … flush it into the public domain.”

Municipal Association of Victoria president David Clarke said councils already had disclosure requirements for receiving gifts or declaring conflicts of interest on specific decisions as they came up, and some councils already required that councillors meet with developers only with a council officer present.

But he said the lack of real-time, public disclosure of meetings with stakeholder groups including developers, lobbyists or objectors was a “weakness” he hoped would be addressed in any reforms stemming from IBAC’s recommendations. He said he was happy for local government to “lead” even if there wasn’t a similar level of scrutiny on state government MPs.

“It works for the councillors, but it also works for the developers. They need to be really aware that they can meet with a councillor, but that it is going to be on the public record in a week or two,” he said.

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