A COUNCILLOR has called for councils to be removed from planning and development matters after being involved in a Code of Conduct complaint over the opening of his business.
The Local Government Code of Conduct panel has issued Cr Paul Belcher with a caution after finding that he had brought his role as a councillor, and the council, into disrepute by opening his business last year without all the necessary approvals. The panel dismissed a complaint that Cr Belcher had tried to use his position as a councillor to gain preferential treatment.
Cr Belcher today told New Norfolk and Derwent Valley News that he had no issue with the Code of Conduct process, but his experience had reinforced his view that councils should not be responsible for the administration of the state’s planning laws.
He said he welcomed the opportunity to comment, because the Code of Conduct regulations had prevented him from discussing the matter until the findings were published in a council agenda, as had occurred yesterday for next week’s council meeting.
The six-month investigation began last March when the council’s former environmental health officer (EHO) lodged a complaint with the then acting general manager of the council. The complaint was referred to the Code of Conduct panel.
During a hearing at the New Norfolk Courthouse on August 5, former council EHO David Bradford said Cr Belcher had failed to comply with building and environmental health requirements before opening his pizza business in New Norfolk, and he had used his position to seek preferential treatment.
In response, Cr Belcher said he had tried to comply with the council’s requirements but it became impossible to obtain information about his responsibilities after he declined an offer by Mr Bradford to buy into the business. Mr Bradford told the hearing that he had not been serious about buying a share in Cr Belcher’s pizza business, and it was a “throwaway line” in a jokey manner.
The panel also interviewed former council general manager Greg Winton, who told the hearing that Cr Belcher had informed him of the “offer to buy into the pizza business,” and asked for Mr Bradford to be removed from dealing with his business, but there was no evidence put forward that required further action on his [Mr Winton’s] part.
Mr Winton told the hearing he did not believe that Cr Belcher sought or expected preferential treatment because of his role as a councillor. Mr Winton said Cr Belcher did not have a lot of faith in some of the staff and had said that when he requested information in writing, it was often given verbally.
Mr Bradford said his evidence clearly showed Cr Belcher was guilty of a breach of the Code of Conduct. He said Cr Belcher had been advised of the whole process for opening his business and was given treatment “over and above” that given to other applicants.
Cr Belcher disagreed, saying the fact that Mr Winton had issued him with an infringement notice [for opening his business without the required permits], showed that he did not receive preferential treatment. He said he had been treated in a worse manner than others, and if he had been the recipient of preferential treatment his business would have opened much earlier. He accepted he had done the wrong thing in opening when he did.
Speaking today, Cr Belcher said he had in the past found it difficult to reconcile complaints that the Derwent Valley Council was hard to do business with, as he believed it to be a “pro-development” council. “My own experience in trying to open a relatively uncomplicated pizza shop opened my eyes,” he said. “A neighbouring business gave up on a plan to use a shipping container for storage after being asked to pay for architectural drawings of the container,” he said.
“Practically no candidates running for election to a council realise they will also become a member of a local planning authority,” he said. “With the development of the single statewide planning scheme, it is time for the government to remove councils from planning and development matters.”
Mr Bradford told New Norfolk and Derwent Valley News that he was disheartened with the outcome, and his experience had left him feeling disappointed with the Code of Conduct process and the council itself.
READ FOR YOURSELF: The Code of Conduct determination appears from page 48-59 in the agenda for this Thursday’s council meeting. Councillors will be asked to note the report.
Disclosure: Paul Belcher is an advertiser in the print edition of New Norfolk and Derwent Valley News. The editor and publisher of New Norfolk and Derwent Valley News is a customer of Pauly’s Pizza.