‘Gifts’ enable networking – mayor

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TICKETS and invitations for council officers and councillors to attend sporting events are a “perfect example” of the type of “gift” that can benefit Mornington Peninsula Shire, according to the mayor Cr Bryan Payne.

“It’s amazing who you meet in these super boxes,” Cr Payne said.

He said sporting events “in particular … break down all barriers” and help forge beneficial networks.

Cr Payne said he had no problems with the shire’s CEO Carl Cowie accepting two $300 tickets from recruitment firm McArthur to a corporate box at an AFL game in May.

The shire’s gifts, benefits and hospitality register shows Mr Cowie accepted finals tickets from McArthur in September 2016.

McArthur was this month hired by council to find suitable candidates for the shire’s top job, which has a package of about $400,000.

Cr Payne said he had “noted” Mr Cowie’s entry in the gifts register and brought it to the attention of other councillors and the consultant from McArthur working for the shire.

“That consultant [head of executive search Nick Kelly] was not at that event,” Cr Payne said.

Cr Payne said he had “no problem” with shire officers accepting gifts “as long as they’re disclosed – if they’re not disclosed, we have a problem”.

He said there were many benefits for shire staff to network with government staff and company representatives.

The mayor has previously criticised Mr Cowie’s reluctance to declare a Mediterranean cruise taken by he and his wife aboard a luxury liner hired by prominent businessman and shire property owner, Lindsay Fox.

Mr Cowie eventually listed the cruise in the register in March, putting the “estimated value of gift” at $8400.

Cr Payne said that he would not have accepted such an invitation during his days as a municipal CEO.

On Friday, Mr Cowie said it was appropriate for shire officers to accept invitations from private firms “where hospitality provides an opportunity to undertake business of a common purpose”.

Invitations were not accepted if they “have potential implications for council’s reputation or image or may cause an actual or perceived conflict of interest”.

The gifts, benefits and hospitality register is available for public scrutiny, but only at the shire’s Rosebud office during business hours.

An appointment must be made to see the register and the inspection time is limited to 15 minutes. No photocopies or photographs are allowed to be taken of the register and a council officer is present while the register is being looked at.

Councillors and shire officers who have made declarations in the register are told that the register has been inspected and can see who has made the inspection.

Gifts declared in the register range from a $2 necklace from the Friends of Los Palos group to Mr Cowie’s Mediterranean Cruise.

Mr Cowie and the shire’s corporate counsel David Carrington have also accepted tickets to the Australian Open tennis. Mr Cowie went courtesy of Optus and Mr Carrington was a guest of recruitment firm, Taylor Root.

Mr Cowie passed on two $200 tickets to a Cricket Victoria function at the MCG to other council officers.

The gifts register is audited each year by the Victorian Auditor General’s Office with the results being passed on to council’s risk and audit committee, but not made public.

The Gifts, Benefits and Hospitality Policy 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.

“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.”

Mr Cowie said shire officers “in consultation with their manager, consider each invitation on its merits and make appropriate decisions consistent with the shire’s gifts policy”.

“Mornington Peninsula Shire goes beyond the minimum transparency requirements and makes the gifts register available for public inspection,” he said.

“All shire officers clearly understand their obligations to avoid conflicts of interest and do not accept invitations that may give rise to any conflict of interest.”

First published in the Frankston Times – 20 August 2018

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