Councillor threatened for exposing sweetheart deal
A Marrickville councillor is fighting suspension following his exposure of a developer’s attempt to curry favour with the council on a controversial development in the inner west known as the Lewisham Towers.
Marrickville Greens councillor Max Phillips has lodged an appeal against the Division of Local Government’s decision to suspend him for two months from February 17.
The suspension request was made by a bloc of Liberal, Labor and independent councillors in April last year after Phillips refused to apologise to council and to big developer Meriton.
Phillips is unrepentant for alerting residents to Meriton’s offer to the council of $5 million in exchange for agreeing to massively increase the size and density of the Lewisham Towers project.
Voluntary planning agreements (VPAs) were made legal by the state ALP government in 2005. They are used by cash-strapped councils to extract greater contributions from developers.
Phillips told Green Left Weekly: “It allows developers to offer cash or other incentives in return for often large exceedences of planning regulations. Many residents find it hard to comprehend that such a thing is legal in NSW.”
Meriton was seeking to get Marrickville council to agree to double the number of storeys from 10 to 20 at the Lewisham Towers site. It had approached Marrickville Council in November 2012 offering $5 million in exchange for its proposal.
A long-running residents’ campaign by the No Lewisham Towers group, against a previous over-development plan for a 14-storey tower and supermarket mall had been successful in forcing back previous developers. The residents action group was not prepared to go backwards and let Meriton get its way.
In 2009, the Greens on council pushed for and got council to commission a new plan, with smaller towers and less retail space.
Phillips noted on his blog that Meriton boss Harry Triguboff met with the then Marrickville mayor, independent Victor Macri, in November 2012 and shortly afterwards Meriton briefed all councillors of its plan, including outlining its proposed VPA.
At a council meeting on December 11, 2012, councillors were asked to vote on whether to enter into this VPA with Meriton. Residents were told to leave the chambers, with the Mayor deeming the item confidential.
It was later revealed that Meriton had insisted on this measure and Macri had obliged.
After a rowdy meeting, behind closed doors, a complaint was lodged against Phillips.
Councillors also voted unanimously against entering into negotiations with Meriton.
Even though an independent review in March last year found that Meriton’s briefing was not confidential, it said that Phillips had breached the code of conduct by speaking publicly about the issue.
In April, Council demanded Phillips apologise to council and Meriton. After he refused, councillors voted to censure him and a complaint was made to the Division of Local Government.
Phillips said: “Trying to force an insincere apology from me under threat of sanction, the Council and Division of Local Government were asking me to lie, which I refused to do.”
Phillips believes that even if VPAs are deemed legal, they are ethically wrong. He believes that they should be disclosed and has tried to persuade, without success, other parties on council to introduce a new approach to transparency around VPAs.
“Major planning decisions should be conducted in an open, public and transparent manner”, Phillips said.
“I don’t think you should have to apologise for being honest. I acted ethically and will wear the censure from Labor and Liberal as a badge of honour.
“I want to be able to continue to represent my community on council without a suspension, but I refuse to act dishonestly even if it means I will be suspended.”