A vital planning report on VicSmart that councillors agreed on 27 February would be discussed at the Tuesday 14 March meeting was missing from the shire agenda that was published on Wednesday 8 March.
An accompanying document said only that the agenda item had been withdrawn.
Then, next day, the item was reinstated, after a fashion –the accompanying document was removed from the shire website, leaving a statement in the agenda that the withdrawn report “will be circulated separately” .
Two days later, on Friday afternoon, the report appeared as a document separate from the agenda.
This sequence of events indicates apparent haste and confusion in the shire administration. What caused it is a mystery. But speculation abounds.
The report’s withdrawal indicated it was a last-minute decision, made when the agenda was on the verge of being released. No explanation on what caused the SNAFU was provided, not even to councillors, Bandicoot believes.
The report that appeared on Friday afternoon was seemingly done in a rush. Bandicoot will deal with this aspect of the matter further on in this article.
It is highly unusual in Bandicoot’s experience that an item decided by councillor vote would be removed from an agenda without reference to them. Bandicoot cannot recall another such instance in the past decade or so and regards the decision as, at the very least, a serious discourtesy to councillors by the council executive.
Agendas are directed by the shire CEO and assembled by the governance group. CEOs can approve or disapprove of agenda material, including councillors’ notices of motion.
VicSmart, which is being introduced gradually across the state, has been described by shire planners as a streamlined planning process for minor works able to be approved within 10 days. It removes the need for work to be advertised and removes neighbours’ right to object and to appeal to VCAT.
The section that was to be dealt with on 27 February includes minor work at non-residential properties in urban zones, such as medical and veterinary clinics, work to a value up to $100,000.
The withdrawn report deals with the contentious “Ministerial Amendment to Extend VicSmart to Residential Zones”, which councillors had deferred at the council meeting on 27 February so they could be properly briefed on it by planning officers so as to make an informed decision.
The report released on Friday revealed that state planning minister Richard Wynne had on 1 March – two days after councillors met on 27 February – approved the VicSmart changes, before councillors could make a formal decision on the shire’s stance.
Perhaps this caused the haste and confusion within the shire, and the unfortunate decision initially to withdraw the item from next Tuesday’s agenda.
The sequence of events on VicSmart is revealing, and disturbing.
On 6 January this year the state government advised the shire – and, presumably, every other council district in Victoria – of its intention to expand VicSmart in a limited form into the state’s urban zones. Its deadline for council response was 6 February.
Before that date, shire planning services manager David Bergin wrote to the state planning department stating the shire was favourably disposed to the expansion. Councillors apparently were unaware of the VicSmart plan or Mr Bergin’s letter to the government, his former employer.
The matter came to the 27 February council meeting with little notice, despite the 6 February deadline having passed. A sometimes angry and tense exchange took place – see ‘Planning scheme strips your rights’ at morningtonpeninsulabandicoot.com. The exchange appears towards the end of that report.
Briefly, Mr Bergin was questioned about why the matter had not been brought to councillors urgently after 6 January. He gave reasons why that was not possible; only one meeting was scheduled and councillor briefings were already full, he told the meeting.
Councillors argued that such an urgent item should have been brought to council expeditiously.
(Bandicoot recommends you to go to the article for the full councillor-Bergin exchange.)
This sequence of events is the latest apparently unintentional shire management slight to councillors, which began to emerge last October when councillors discovered via a Herald Sun report that the giant $600 million Moonah Links development plan had been discussed with shire chief executive officer Mr Carl Cowie, who had not taken any councillors, including the mayor, into his confidence.
The then mayor, Graham Pittock, learned of these discussions when contacted for comment on Moonah Links by Melbourne media. He knew nothing of it, he had to tell them, of a project valued at a sum that would buy the entire Kidman pastoral land holding across Australia.
The shire mayor had, in short, been left in the dark and publicly humiliated by the shire CEO’s failure to brief him on this huge proposal.
A number of incidents have followed, including Mr Cowie’s sudden introduction of his Councillor and Staff Interactions Policy 2016, presented as a fait accompli at a meeting last November just after the council elections. The policy states that Mr Cowie “owns” it.
This policy set out a procedure that effectively puts councillors in the position of supplicants, making written requests that staff can decide they are able, or not, to fulfil.
While the CEO is entirely responsible for shire staff, the policy has a worrying rigidity in delineating relations between what is effectively a “parliament” and its “executive” in a workplace that has been up to now – so far as Bandicoot is aware – relatively harmonious for a decade or more.
The policy has the effect of tilting power towards the executive – entirely inappropriate in a democratic system, Bandicoot argues.
The interactions policy was followed by a similar document, the Councillor and Staff Interactions Policy, which defines narrowly how staff and councillors can communicate.
The document states it “defines potential, perceived and actual improper or undue influence or direction by Councillors of staff”.
It does not suggest it is a response to any errant councillor behaviour and adds that the policy “does not relate to normal, operational service requests initiated by the community via Councillors and tracked through the Merit Customer Service System”.
Several councillors complained that the policy gives the public better access to staff than they have.
The directive to staff concludes: “Should you be contacted by a Councillor directly and are not [a nominated point of contact] you should refer the matter to your Manager for their response. Staff not identified as points of contact are not to make direct contact with Councillors.”
Even if these policies were introduced via a state government instruction, they appear to be intended to sideline councillors in performing their role. Bandicoot believes some council officers have effectively gone “underground” in relations with some councillors.
A concurrent worry in the short life of the newly elected council concerns a number of planning decisions, mainly in the rolling rural fields that comprise 70% of the shire, known as its green wedge zone.
Bandicoot will not go into these issues (details are available on this website), save to say they involved large and/or highly questionable developments approved by councillors relying on the reports and recommendations of shire planners.
Some councillor decisions may have resulted in unpermitted work going ahead in the green wedge. More such applications are in the pipeline, possibly coming to council in the next two months.
As to the report prepared for the VicSmart agenda item at Tuesday’s council meeting, some interesting new material emerges for councillors and the public.
For example, it states that “Consultation [on VicSmart] was undertaken between 6 January, 2017 and 6 February, 2017”. This has come as a surprise to some councillors and council watchers. Especially to councillors, who were not part of the consultations.
Bandicoot has not heard of any meetings, private or public, with community groups or planning experts, or any other procedures normally used to conduct such consultations. Nor is he aware of any results or conclusions from this consultation.
With whom did shire officers consult? What were they told? What was their response? Will the consultation report – presumably there was a report – be made public? If the consultation ended on 6 February, why were the findings not brought to council on 27 February, three weeks later?
The report then deals with the 27 February meeting, stating that “Council deferred consideration of the item pending further research”.
First, council did no such thing. It deferred the item “pending a briefing to Council on 6 March…” The word “research” is extremely loosely related to “briefing” and could be read to mean that councillors were to do the research. “Research” is something one does: “briefing” is something one receives.
Second, “council” did not make such a decision: councillors did. Bandicoot is irked at the continual looseness of staff in referring interchangeably to “council” and “councillors”. The Local Government Act definitions are as follows:
► “Council” means a municipal council … ;
► “Councillor” means a person who holds the office of member of a Council.
The casual use of these terms by council staff, and even in legal advice received by the shire, causes unnecessary irritation for strict devotees of semantics.
Council officers and lawyers writing advice for the shire should similarly take great care in how they express themselves, as befits learned folk prepared to argue for days in court, surrounded by stacks of dictionaries, over a definition.
The report then goes on to provide more information about VicSmart, widely described as smart and efficient with a 10-day planning turnaround time from go to whoa.
Officers have now added to this 10 days the fact that VicSmart applications can involve a further five days via a Planning and Environment Regulations amendment, which allows a further “five business days to request further information…”
Shire planners have told councillors the “clock stops” if further information is needed in a VicSmart application. Does it stop for only five days?
The report further adds to our knowledge by stating that the shire “now processes approximately 130 VicSmart applications per annum”, but then confuses us by stating in percentages the number of applications that have, or might, come forward in the new VicSmart categories.
Disingenuously, these percentages are applied to the total number of planning applications per year (some 2400) received across the shire, whether they are in urban or another planning zone where VicSmart might not yet apply and may never apply.
This rather supports the soothing shire argument that VicSmart is only a “negligible” percentage of applications. The public, however, is not better informed by such a line of argument.
But these small numbers could well rise when people get to grips with VicSmart and start using/exploiting it.
The fact is that planners, and shire officials generally, rather like the prospect of dealing with “simple” matters such as $100,000 house extensions (one extension or two, Vicar?) with an apparently uncapped value – previously capped at $100,000, now seemingly open-ended, according to the planning report – plus no requirement for advertising this work and no right to object or appeal to VCAT.
And no requirement to have to put up with councillors meddling on behalf of worried neighbours who somehow discover a huge extension is planned for the house next door.
Developers will like VicSmart, too.