Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Should Councillors talk to constituents to hear their views on development applications?

Ever since the Lockyer Valley Mayor addressed a community meeting last December, we have been hearing that Councillors need to be very careful about meeting with people objecting to the motocross application, or being seen to allocate more time to objectors than to the applicant, lest they be accused of bias or impartiality.

It was suggested at the 18 March Council meeting that Councillors who might consider accepting an invitation to a community meeting where they could hear the remainder of a presentation on community concerns about the motocross proposal and have the opportunity to ask questions that they should "seek advice".

This whole line or argument seems to fly in the face of Councillors' responsibilities and duties, and even to be contrary to the provisions of the Local Government Act.  I've lost count of the number of people who were dumbfounded when they heard that this could even be an issue.  The way it has been presented seems to cast Councillors in the role of a "jury" which should not be contaminated by seeking information or understanding outside of that provided by the Council staff (and possibly also the applicant).  Clearly Councillors are not a jury - they are elected representatives of their constituents.

So my attention was grabbed last night when there was an item on the TV news showing Brisbane City Councillor Helen Abrahams addressing a rally in West End against a highrise development application, and apparently siding with the protesters.  Didn't she realise the risks she was taking?

This morning I checked out her website - she's even inviting people to discuss the details of the application with her!  Here's an excerpt from her website page which deals with this application:

The application is Impact Assessable and so neighbours will be notified and it will be advertised on the property boundary. There is a right of appeal of Council’s decision. You can view the development application at The Gabba Ward Office, 2/63 Annerley Road, Woolloongabba or at a Customer Service Centre. Alternatively you can view the application on line at and click on view development applications and follow the prompts.

You may wish to make a submission on the application. The submission should be addressed to Mr Colin Jensen, CEO, Brisbane City Council, GPO Box 1434, Brisbane Q 4001. If you wish to discuss the details of this application with Councillor Helen Abrahams please ring 3403 2160.

How could the situation be so different in the Lockyer Valley Region?

Helen Abrahams has been a Councillor since 2003, thus she should be pretty knowledgeable about potential issues of bias and partiality which might arise when dealing with her constituents.  So I phoned her and asked  whether her close involvement with her constituents' issues has ever been raised as a possible basis for charges of bias or lack of impartiality within the Brisbane City Council.

Her response was one of surprise at the questions, and incredulity when I described the warnings issued to LVRC Councillors.  Her view is that, as a Councillor, her constituents' problems are her problems.  She believes that she  needs to know about them and understand them, and to advocate on behalf of her constituents.  I gathered from what she said that doing this is not in any way in conflict with the well informed impartiality that she brings to bear in the Council decision-making process as a Councillor.  It is what is expected of Councillors and her role has never been challenged in terms of partiality or of bias. 

Brisbane City Council operates under the City of Brisbane Act 2010 - but, much of that Act (including the parts dealing with Councillors' responsibilities, conflict of interest, and impartiality) mirror the Local Government Act 2009.  Neither piece of legislation has any prohibitions on Councillors informing themselves of the views and expectations of their constituents, even in relation to development applications. There's nothing about allocating "equal time" to constituents and applicants either.

On that basis, you'd have to wonder where this "policy" that is being applied to the LVR Councillors comes from, and whose interests it is serving.

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