MORNINGTON Peninsula Shire mayor Cr Bryan Payne wants the public to be able to see a register of gifts made to council officers.
“I personally agree that the gift register should be available for public inquiry and I will raise that matter with my fellow councillors,” Cr Payne said last week.
The move for greater transparency around gifts to council officers follows revelations that shire CEO Carl Cowie in July 2016 was a guest aboard a cruise ship hired by prominent businessman and Portsea property owner, Lindsay Fox (“Shire boss on Fox ‘party’ cruise”, The Times 11/12/17).
Mr Cowie says that because the Mediterranean cruise was made at no cost to the shire “it was not required to be placed on the gift register”.
It is understood that Mr Cowie and his wife paid their own airfares to Europe to join the cruise from Athens to Venice during council approved leave.
The shire’s Gifts, Benefits and Hospitality policy – an “internal” document “owned” by the CEO – states: “Gifts, benefits and hospitality received must not create a real or perceived sense of obligation that may lead to a perception of preference or conflict.”
The policy also states: “Councillors and council staff are to ensure that attendance at private functions does not have potential implications for council’s reputation or image or may cause an actual or perceived conflict of interest.”
Several other cruise guests, as well as Mr Fox, own valuable property on the peninsula.
When first asked about Mr Cowie’s trip last month Cr Payne, who was not a councillor at the time of the 2016 cruise, agreed “it could look like a conflict of interest if it didn’t have council approval”.
Cr Bev Colomb, who was a councillor during the previous council term when Mr Cowie joined Mr Fox’s so-called “conception party”, said she had not been “part of an approval process” for the trip.
She believed the then mayor, former councillor Graham Pittock, “knew of it, but it wasn’t brought to all of us”.
“My view is that management, along with councillors, of course, needs to declare an interest when any relevant issue comes up,” Cr Colomb said.
“And this, along with all registers, needs to be accessible to the public.”
Cr Colomb was one of four of the shire’s 11 councillors to respond to an email asking questions about council’s gifts policy. Two councillors – Hugh Fraser and Frank Martin – had an automatic email response saying they were on leave.
Crs Simon Brooks, Sam Hearn, Kate Roper and Rosie Clark did not respond to the email.
Cr Antonella Celi in her reply said she would leave any comment about the gifts policy up to the mayor.
Cr David Gill said he was awaiting answers from council officers to questions he had asked about the gifts register “including if [registering a gift is] a legal requirement”.
Each councillor was asked if they thought activities such as accepting a free cruise on a ship hired by a high-profile ratepayer such as Mr Fox should be listed in the gifts register and whether the register should be a public document.
The official council response in December stated: “The gifts policy is an internal corporate policy. Such policies are not placed on council’s website.
“The register has been audited on an annual basis. There is no legal requirement to make this available externally subject to Freedom of Information requests.”
The Times asked the shire for details of the audit process (see below).
Neighbouring Frankston Council’s Staff Gifts and Hospitality Policy register is available for public inspection.
Mr Cowie returned to work late last year after a council-sanctioned trip which included seminars and conferences in Sweden, Germany and Malta. This trip was paid for from his $30,000 study tour allowance on top of his near $400,000 salary package.
The “conception party” cruise in July 2016, took place before Mr Fox’s 80th birthday which was celebrated in April 2017 at Montalto Vineyard and Olive Grove, Red Hill South.
Mr Fox – generally regarded as one of the peninsula’s most high profile property owners – chartered the Seabourn Odyssey for a seven-day trip between Athens and Venice for his “conception cruise”.
The ship costs about $200,000 a day to charter and can carry more than 450 passengers. Mr Fox’s guests included actor Hugh Jackman, TV personality and Collingwood Football Club president Eddie McGuire, retail billionaire Solomon Lew and his Premier Investments CEO Mark McInnes, mining magnates Gina Rinehart and Andrew Forrest, former Crown Casino boss and horse breeder Lloyd Williams, the Pratt family and politicians Bill Kelty and Jeff Kennett.
Several of the cruise guests own property on the peninsula.
Questions and answers
MORNINGTON Peninsula Shire CEO Carl Cowie late Friday afternoon provided answers to the following questions:
Why is the gifts register is not available to the public?
It is not a policy under the Local Government Act 1989 required to be public.
Does Mr Cowie think the gifts register should be made public?
If the LGA does not require it to be public, this is our guiding statutory instrument. It is not part of the CEO role to provide personal opinions under the Local Government Act.
Who decides what “gifts” or other benefits should be added to the register?
Items are listed on the register in line with the organisation policy, a policy consistent with good governance and procurement principles and applied across the 79 local government authorities in Victoria.
How does the annual audit of the gift register work?
It forms part of the annual audit that all 79 Victorian councils are required to undergo.
What does the audit cover?
What any audit covers, ensuring the elements of the audit analysis comply with generally accepted accounting principles.
Who does the audit?
VAGO (Victorian Auditor General’s Office).
Who gets the audit results?
The council’s audit and risk committee on an annual basis, which is a properly constituted committee of council to consider all such matters. The committee has independent auditing experts as well as councillor representation.