Council corruption in the spotlight after Operation Belcarra
LOCAL Government is under the pump in Queensland following the Crime and Corruption Commission's Operation Belcarra which has led to the axing of four mayors and a councillor.
In Ipswich alone in the past 11 months, 70 charges have been laid against 15 people linked to that council.
Two mayors, Paul Pisasale and his replacement Andrew Antoniolli, are to front the court, as are past CEOs Jim Lindsay and Carl Wulf as well as the Chief Operating Officer for Works, Parks and Recreation Craig Maudsley.
Logan Mayor Luke Smith, Doomadgee Mayor Edric Walden, Hope Vale Mayor Greg McLean and Logan councillor Stacey McIntosh have all been suspended by Local Government Minister Stirling Hinchliffe under new powers introduced to Parliament this month.
Ipswich City councillors have also been asked to justify why they shouldn't be dismissed.
On the Fraser Coast, former mayor Chris Loft was dismissed, subsequently losing an appeal in early May against the decision made because of alleged breaches of Local Government principles and three CCC charges relating to misconduct in public office, disclosure of secrets and computer hacking and misuse.
Logan Mayor Luke Smith faces charges of official corruption, failing to correct his register of interests and perjury centred around allegations a Chinese developer who gave tens-of-thousands of dollars to his 2016 election campaign had also given him a 10-passenger luxury Sea Ray 240 Sundeck motor cruiser.
He has indicated he will vigorously defend the charges.
The State Government has announced it would provide $14million in funding for an Office of Independent Assessor to deal with complaints about councillors and to improve governance practices.
To date, the first assessment of complaints to the CCC had been the council's Chief Executive Officer.
Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk has also committed an extra $7.4 million to help it fight local government corruption through employment of eight front-line police investigators and to establish a covert human intelligence unit.
Ms Palaszczuk revealed that during the past three years, the CCC's investigation of public sector corruption had increased 57 per cent, with complaints against local government rising by 41 per cent.
"My Government is committed to restoring Queenslanders' confidence in the local government sector," she said.
The State Government crackdown and Crime and Corruption Commission charges come at a time of growing disquiet among ratepayers about closed-door decisions, planning amendments and a lack of transparency around decision making often made without public debate among councillors.
Local Government of Queensland CEO Greg Hallam said he retained faith in the system but acknowledges it needed to be improved, pointing to its 10-point Beyond Belcarra plan which he said exceeded recommendations from the Belcarra Inquiry.
"Less than 19 of the total number of elected members in Queensland have been affected," he said.
"The truth is, 90 per cent will never get a donation and aren't in anyone's kick."
Mr Hallam points to a LGAQ survey of southeast Queensland and provisional councils where only between 0.5 per cent and two per cent of development applications were determined by elected councillors.
He said advice back from councils was that in 90 per cent of cases, decisions went against the developer.
"We need to be really careful we're not fixing the wrong problem," Mr Hallam said.
"I'm always worried about straight-out corruption."
Citing the example of the ACT government where three officials have been charged relating to bribes totalling $300,000, he said "he was not blind to the possibility".
But Mr Hallam said the Queensland development approval statistics were very compelling.
"Local Government doesn't like giving State Government more power," he said.
"It's appropriate in the circumstances they will be reviewed in two years.
Bob Abbot, the former long-serving mayor of Noosa and first-term mayor of Sunshine Coast Council, later became a mayoral mentor for the LGAQ.
He said the situation in southeast Queensland was a worry that had started with the Gold Coast, spreading to Ipswich and Logan areas that all had had ongoing high levels of development activity.
"It's not a situation I've found myself in," Mr Abbot said.
"But I can see the amount of money being spent in those communities.
"It's an environment of high risk and needs a high level of integrity to steer clear of the nastiness.
"If you apply the law, planning legislation is quite strong.
"The problem is always the way it's interpreted. If they are prone to abuse the system they will find a way."
Despite that, Mr Abbot sees the current spate of issues as a blip.
And while he believes some councils have grown too quickly for proper monitoring, he says laws were always written to restrict the behaviour of the few.
"We have 72 councils in Queensland and the majority do the right thing," Mr Abbot said.
"Local Government is under pressure due to the few."
Howard Whitton, an expert in public sector ethics and anti-corruption policy and the founding director of The Ethicos Group consultancy, said scandal often came because existing rules weren't being enforced.
"If the government is determined to get the bad guys to pay attention, setting up an independent body would deliver very direct scrutiny," Mr Whitton said.
"Ratepayers are entitled to have confidence their money was being spent in a proper way. Transparency is the checking mechanism."