Originally written by BILL MELDRUM
THE Glenelg Shire Council has been stunned after ongoing antagonism between Crs Karen Stephens and Geoff White escalated at Tuesday night’s special council meeting.
The meeting was held to discuss the council’s position on the controversial half-completed house on a coastal sand dune at Narrawong.
VCAT had sought the council position after the landowner Graham Robertson suggested the house could be moved 12 metres to the north of its current location.
The council voted four votes to two to continue its in principle support for the house to be completed, despite a report from shire planning staff recommending the development be refused because it was contrary to the principles of seven council and state government strategies and policies.
However, it was an allegation made by Cr Stephens against Cr White at the start of the meeting that stunned the council and resulted in Cr White declaring an indirect conflict of interest on the agenda item and leaving the chamber during discussion and the vote on the item.
Cr Stephens referred to a recent telephone conversation between Cr White and Mr Robertson late last month discussing the council’s position on the application.
She said there was a perception within the public that Cr White had a “pre-determined view on the application”.
Cr White denied having a “close, personal friendship with Mr Robertson”.
He said he had been contacted by Mr Robertson who had asked if the council had discussed the issue before VCAT at a recent briefing session.
“I told him no,” he said.
Cr White told the meeting it had been put to himself quite clearly in correspondence that he was perceived to have a heavily-biased position on the matter on the basis he had a close personal relationship with the proponent.
“My concern is that as a councillor I could act quite properly, but be placed in an unfair situation where some members of the community criticise me for not voting to support their particular concern in this matter,” he said.
“In the circumstances I am not prepared to put myself in that situation.
“Consequently I am confronted by the close association provisions of the relevant section, or indirect conflict under the conflict of interest legislation.”
Cr White also accused Cr Stephens of sending an email at eight minutes to midnight following a council meeting earlier this year on the Robertson application, saying it appeared as though the council’s position had been “formulated in the front bar of the Gordon Hotel or on the greens of the Portland Golf Club”.
Speaking after Tuesday night’s meeting, Cr White accused Cr Stephens of ambushing him and that he was forced to declare an indirect conflict of interest because “perceptions matter more than the truth”.
“There is an unwritten protocol within the council that councillors do not ambush councillors, councillors do not ambush managers or officers … you raise these issues in briefing sessions, you do not surprise or attempt to embarrass people at a public forum,” he said.
“Cr Stephens has been doing that consistently in recent times … in no way have I acted improperly.”
A request by Narrawong residents to ask questions at the meeting was refused by mayor Gilbert Wilson.
Cr Wilson said provisions under the Local Government Act prevented questions from the gallery being asked.
It was later speculated questions from the gallery could have been allowed if a motion to suspend standing orders had been supported by councillors, however, shire management confirmed such a move was allowed at ordinary, but not special meetings.
It is expected the council’s position will be put to VCAT.