An independent investigator who dismissed allegations by the area’s biggest developer of corrupt conduct against Tweed Shire Council told councillors last night that some of the claims were of a purely personal nature and others were not backed up by documented evidence.
The independent review of complaints raised by Leda Developments over how council has dealt with its township developments at Kings Forest and Cobaki were tabled last night with 19 recommendations.
The review dealt with complaints made by Leda in two reports it compiled in 2011 that critics had termed ‘dirt files’, which were leaked selectively to compliant local media and dismissed by a previous council general manager, Mike Rayner.
The review also looked at a further one in January this year which the developer sent to the state government.
Consultant Kath Roach, the managing director of SINC Solutions, said she used all her skills of her previous careers, including 14 years as an investigator with the Australian Federal Police, to come to her conclusions.
Council staff recommended that $30,000 be spent to implement the review’s recommendations which include appointing an external party to look into complaints over conduct of senior staff and improving the way council handles complaints in relation to major developments.
Ms Roach said she had thoroughly investigated all reports provided by Leda and spoke to all those concerned to ‘ensure no issue was unresolved’ in the longstanding saga between the property developer and council.
She said ‘we went to everyone we had to go to’ and had full access to all documentation over the complaints but found no corrupt conduct issues or no code of conduct breaches requiring further investigation.
The review, she said, had also benchmarked Tweed council with other councils in relation to planning interaction with Leda.
The property developer has previously tried to persuade the government to remove Tweed Council’s planning staff from assessing applications for its proposed satellite townships for around 10,000 new homes.
Almost two years ago, billionaire developer Bob Ell’s right-hand man on the Tweed, Reg Van Rij, put the case for an approvals panel to take over the council’s role when he met planning minister Don Page to push for an inquiry into council’s handling of their two projects.
Mr Van Rij at the time also launched a PR blitz by taking out full-page advertisements in local daily newspapers calling for an independent investigations into allegations contained in Leda’s two ‘dossiers’.
Then just last week, in a pre-emptive strike before the independent review was to be tabled, Mr Van Rij told a local media outlet that he would lodge yet another complaint against council after what he said were ‘very alarming documents’ emerged regarding council’s dealings with the company.
But he refused to release the documents while the code of conduct complaint was being investigated claiming it could ‘lead to the suspension of one or more councillors for a period’.
In an unusual request to council last night, Tweed Heads accountant Terry Sharples asked to address councillors on the issue.
Mr Sharples, who lost an expensive and drawn out battle with council in the past few years over council’s recently ended seven-year rate plan, told councillors he was concerned the review and its findings would not be debated in open session and concerned about its costs.
He said he feared the conflict between the developer and council would ‘never stop’ if the issue remained behind closed doors but said he was satisfied the review process had been more open than expected.
Pro-development bloc Cr Carolyn Byrne asked Ms Roach if her last recommendation (that council takes no further action against against any staff member or councillor for any code of conduct breaches that may have been alleged up to the date of the review report) was too ‘simple’.
Cr Byrne was questioning whether the latest allegation by Leda made last month would be dealt with, but Ms Roach said that the review could not look at issues beyond its final reporting cutoff date earlier this year.
Ms Roach told Cr Byrne that under the council’s new code of conduct, which came into force on March 1 this year, Leda, ‘like anyone else’, was entitled to lodge a complaint at any time but, ‘needs to follow the correct process’.
Council’s acting general manager, Troy Green, said in a statement this week that, ‘management had commissioned the review in good faith and was committed to implementing its recommendations’.
‘The recommendations aim to facilitate a better working relationship between both Council and Leda and we look forward to making changes to improve that relationship,’ Mr Green said.
‘It is important to note that the report notes no corrupt conduct issues and no code of conduct breaches were identified during the review which required further investigation or referral to another agency,’ Mr Green said.
‘Nevertheless, the recommendations identified a number of ways in which both parties could improve their processes and practices.
Mr Green also said council could, ‘take no action against any Council staff member or Councillor mentioned in the review report for any alleged code of conduct breaches that may have alleged up to the date of the report’.
A copy of the SINC report has been sent to the Division of Local Government.
Cr Gary Bagnall told Echonetdaily this morning that Leda had always tried to ‘give us bad press’ in its quest to overcome what it saw as hurdles to its developments, and some local media had been ‘very one sided about the issue’
‘But council is just trying to protect ratepayers,’ Cr Bagnall said.
‘It will cost council millions of dollars to fix developer’s problems on such large projects if they don’t do the right thing and walk away after they’ve made their money, so we can’t be too careful, otherwise they’ll send us broke,’ he said.