INCREASED transparency was on the agenda at this week’s Kingston council meeting but councillors opted not to tighten procedures surrounding potential conflicts of interest when distributing ward funds.
Cr Geoff Gledhill said councillors should no longer be allowed to give ward funds to politically motivated groups or organisations.
A Local Government Investigations and Compliance Inspectorate state-wide review of discretionary funds distribution by councillors found many councils, including Kingston, did not have appropriate controls in place to prevent corrupt or fraudulent behaviour.
The inspectorate’s report, released late last year, noted that “risks include potentially fraudulent or corrupt practices by individual councillors, whereby funds may be committed to self-interest groups; and potential reputational risk if public funds are misspent”.
Kingston councillors have $6000 in ward funds to hand out to community groups each fiscal year.
Cr Gledhill said councillors wanted to continue providing grants to genuine community groups or individuals but that council should not give ratepayers’ money to organisations that are affiliated with or support a political party.
“I am not trying to stifle free speech,” Cr Gledhill said. “Groups can criticise council… but we just don’t want to fund it and I don’t think it’s fair that the community funds it.”
He said “any group that undertakes its activities in a genuine, consistent and transparent manner” would have nothing to fear from stricter funding regulations.
Cr Rosemary West disagreed with stricter controls on the distribution of ward grants.
“I would hate it if a majority of elected councillors were given the right to decide which community group should or should not receive ward funds,” Cr West said.
“Some people in the community are members of political parties [and] it would be an oppressive action for people on council to make political judgements about whether a group could receive funding”.
“[This would be] an extraordinary way to censor and perhaps gag community groups.”
Cr West said she had never been a member of a political party.
Cr David Eden questioned who would determine whether a community group was affiliated with a political group and suggested that “an interrogations and investigations department” may have to be established.
He wondered whether a community group would be regarded as being ‘affiliated’ with a political party if a president, secretary or pre-determined quota of members were members of a party.
”There needs to be further discussion and work on this,” Cr Eden said.
“Under the Equal Opportunities Act, people have a right to have a political belief and not be discriminated against because of that. Groups are made up of individuals and if we start saying that there is a political association seen within that group I don’t believe we are compliant with such regulation.”
Cr Gledhill also said council should not use “sacrosanct ratepayers’ money” to effectively fund VCAT appeals against council planning decisions.
Crs Tamsin Bearsley, Gledhill and John Ronke supported the move to further tighten restrictions on ward funds distribution. Crs Tamara Barth, Eden, Steve Staikos and Rosemary West opposed the motion.
Mayor Paul Peulich and Cr Ron Brownlees were absent from the meeting due to ill-health.