Several councillors told last night’s meeting that they did not want to take the risk of remaining in the chamber to hear the debate, participate in it or vote in it, even if they did not believe they had a genuine conflict of interest.
The council fell short of a quorum – a required minimum of seven councillors – twice last night, and was forced to defer decision-making in the hope that more members would turn up and be able to remain in the room to vote at the next meeting.
Several city councillors have expressed irritation at having to regularly absent themselves from important votes since tougher local government conflict of interest laws came into force early last year.
But the frequency of conflict declarations has appeared to increase since January, when Ombudsman Wayne Lines launched an investigation into whether area councillor Sandy Wilkinson had breached conflict of interest laws, following a report by InDaily.
(Lines’ investigation is ongoing. Wilkinson has produced legal advice suggesting he did not have any conflict of interest during the relevant votes. InDaily understands all councillors have since been given additional training on conflict of interest laws.)
Last night, the council was unable to make a decision on a request by the Mayfair Hotel to impinge on King William Street’s footpath – opposite Rundle Mall, near the corner of Hindley Street – to allow an indented drop-off zone for guests arriving in cars.
South Ward councillor Priscilla Corbell declared she had a conflict of interest because she had accepted “hospitality” from the hotel and left the room for the debate.
Fellow South Ward councillor Alex Antic said that he had attended a function there, and because of the “draconian provisions” of the conflict laws, he would also leave the chamber.
“I don’t believe I have one [a conflict of interest] but I’m not prepared to roll the dice,” Antic said.
Area councillor Sandy Verschoor and Deputy Lord Mayor Megan Hender also declared conflicts and left the room.
I hope that a deep sense of paranoia has not descended.
Area councillor Anne Moran suggested that the council should delegate the decision to council CEO Mark Goldstone because “we are never going to get a quorum [to vote on the issue]”.
“It’s entirely appropriate for people who have a conflict of interest to delegate to the CEO,” she said.
She added that allowing a council staff member to make decisions on behalf of the council was not something she would normally support, but that it was necessary, under the circumstances.
Area councillor Natasha Malani said it was “a really sad day for local government” but that it was “time to take the decision out of our hands”.
However, North Ward councillor Phil Martin argued delegating authority to Goldstone to decide the issue would effectively silence councillors, including him, who object to the hotel’s proposal.
The council also fell short of a quorum to make a decision on car parking during events in the parklands.
Hender, Malani and North Ward councillor Sue Clearihan each said they were board members in organisations that hold events on the parklands, and left the room.
Malani, who has complained during several meetings over the past year that the conflict laws are “ridiculous”, initially said she would remain in the room for the vote, but later acknowledged “it’s my job to represent the best interests of the entity [which holds events on the parklands]” and absented herself.
Lord Mayor Martin Haese told the chamber after it was confirmed that the council would have to defer the decision: “I hope that a deep sense of paranoia has not descended [on councillors].”
Both issues will be reconsidered at the council’s next meeting in a fortnight.
The council did, however, make some decisions last night, authorising upgrades to China Town, the installation of new carpets in Town Hall and further consultation on a proposal to close Peel Street to traffic.
Central Ward Councillor Houssam Abiad and Wilkinson (who has suffered a bereavement) were absent from the meeting.
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