Report wants crackdown on relationship between developers, councillors

Tasmania’s Integrity Commission has recommended legislative change requiring councillors to regularly disclose their personal interests, and for the definition of ‘interest’ to be widened.

Integrity Commission CEO Michael Easton

It comes as the watchdog last week tabled the findings of its investigation into the relationship between a former Derwent Valley Councillor, Paul Belcher, and local property developer Roostam Sadri.

It also comes amid warnings that attempts by developers to influence members of local government will intensify as land value in the state continues to rise.

The investigation found Mr Belcher, who had a financial and personal relationship with Mr Sadri, advocated for the developer’s interests and was gifted $5,000 from Mr Sadri, which he used for his 2018 re-election campaign.

“Councillor Belcher’s advocacy was aimed at pressuring or influencing staff to benefit Mr Sadri (and himself), and at times was an attempt to direct staff in relation to the discharge of their duties,” the report says.

“By engaging with staff and advocating for Mr Sadri’s interests, Councillor Belcher was seeking to take advantage of his office to obtain preferential treatment for Mr Sadri.

“By openly representing Mr Sadri’s interests, at times quite publicly, Councillor Belcher arguably brought his position and, to some degree, Council as a whole into disrepute.”

Mr Belcher pleaded guilty in August to two breaches of the Local Government Act and was fined $2,000 and banned from running for any council for five years.

Legislative reform

In a research paper tabled alongside the report, the Commission calls for amendments to the Tasmanian Local Government Act so all councillors will have to routinely disclose personal interests.

It also recommends that the meaning of  ‘interest’ be widened to include both financial and non-financial conflicts of interest.

Attempts by developers to influence those responsible for planning decisions are also likely to increase … regulatory shortcomings suggest that Tasmania is unprepared to manage the risks.

Tasmanian Integrity Commission CEO Michael Easton

The management of non-pecuniary interests in council meetings is currently only addressed in the Model Code of Conduct, not in legislation.

The commission recommends a similar system as in Queensland, where other councillors at a council meeting where an interest is declared decide how the conflict will be managed – not just the councillor declaring the conflict.

‘Often the least suitable person to assess whether or not someone has a conflict is the person with the conflict themselves. Our suggestion allows for a more modern and mature approach to the management of declared interests,’ Integrity Commission CEO Michael Easton said.

Increasing corruption risks

Mr Easton says without systemic change the same risks that lead to the misconduct uncovered in the report were likely to keep happening.

This would only get worse as demand for housing and land values in Tasmania continued to climb.

“Attempts by developers to influence those responsible for planning decisions are also likely to increase,” Mr Easton said.

“The regulatory shortcomings in this jurisdiction suggest that Tasmania is unprepared to manage the risks that that presents.”

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