AS ratepayers get ready to vote for council candidates in this month’s council elections Neil Walker looks back at two years of turmoil between councillors at Frankston Council.
FEB 2014: Cr Colin Hampton, a Labor Party member, claims then mayor Cr Darrel Taylor promised not to seek Liberal Party preselection if councillors supported his election as mayor in November 2013. Cr Taylor denies this. Mayors serve a 12-month term and are elected by a majority of fellow councillors.
FEB 2014: A bid by Cr Hampton to force Cr Taylor to step down as mayor, alleging Cr Taylor would have a conflict of interest, is defeated when councillors present at that month’s public council meeting vote against the proposal 3-4.
MARCH 2014: Cr Taylor declares he will stay on as mayor if he wins Liberal preselection. Sean Armistead wins Liberal preselection to contest the seat of Frankston at that year’s state election. Labor’s Paul Edbrooke later wins the seat of Frankston by a slim margin in November’s state election.
NOVEMBER 2014: Cr Sandra Mayer is elected mayor for the second time in two years having served as mayor in 2013 but it is not without controversy as there is a public 5-4 councillors split vote to elect the mayor. Crs Glenn Aitken, Brian Cunial, James Dooley and Colin Hampton vote for Cr Mayer to be mayor while Crs Michael O’Reilly, Suzette Tayler and Darrel Taylor publicly back Cr Spelman, Frankston’s deputy mayor for the past 12 months. Battlelines are effectively drawn for the rest of the four-year council term.
JAN 2015: Tensions between councillors about “bullying” allegations erupt into the open when the first public council meeting of the year is adjourned for about 10 minutes. Councillors leave the chamber and can be heard shouting at each other behind closed doors at the back of the council chamber before the meeting resumes.
FEB 2015: The Times reveals Cr Brian Cunial faced a WorkCover probe over a council employee claim for “anxiety and stress” in 2013. The claim was approved. Cr Cunial says he and another unnamed councillor were interviewed by an insurance investigator in relation to a WorkCover claim by a council employee for anxiety and stress. “Following that interview, I heard nothing more, including no allegations of bullying,” Cr Cunial says. The Times can now reveal the other councillor interviewed was Cr Hampton who was a witness for Cr Cunial.
FEB 2015: Cr Michael O’Reilly claims “longer-term councillors get pretty nasty” if first-term councillors disagree with them at briefings held in private. Cr Glenn Aitken confirms council CEO Dennis Hovenden asked council staff to leave a briefing amid a furious argument between Cr Aitken and Cr O’Reilly.
FEB 2015: A motion by Cr Glenn Aitken to write to the state Local Government Minister to force councillors to attend a minimum number of council briefings, amid arguments about some councillors “putting in more work” than others, is defeated by a 4-5 councillors’ vote. Cr O’Reilly claims there is often “intimidating behaviour at briefings” and “this causes people to not want to come to these briefings.”
MAY 2015: A media policy is tabled at council that would force all councillors to notify the mayor, then Cr Sandra Mayer, of any comments made to the media. Councillors decide to defer a decision on the new policy. Some councillors see the attempted policy change as an attempt to “gag” councillors and stop them speaking to the media.
JUNE 2015: A freedom of information request by The Times reveals there have been five proven cases of bullying at Frankston Council in two years and 36 “matters investigated”. Council CEO Dennis Hovenden previously refused to disclose the information when asked at the start of the year.
JULY 2015: Then deputy mayor Cr Glenn Aitken, not a member of any political party, brings a pop-up jack in the box out at a public council meeting with the words: “Who’s the Liberal candidate for Isaacs?” on the box. Cr Darrel Taylor accuses Cr Aitken of attempting to publicly “bully and harass” him by suggesting Cr Taylor will seek Liberal preselection to contest the federal seat of Isaacs at the 2016 federal election. Cr Aitken says he is merely “having a laugh”. Cr Taylor does not ultimately seek federal preselection.
NOV 2015: Cr James Dooley succeeds Cr Sandra Mayer as mayor but again his election to the mayorship is marred by a split 5-3 public vote between councillors. Crs Aitken, Mayer, Cunial and Dooley vote for Dooley to become mayor. Crs Tayler, Spelman and O’Reilly vote for Cr Suzette Tayler to be mayor. Cr Darrel Taylor is absent from the meeting but signals he would have voted for Cr Tayler.
NOV 2015: Cr Hampton is accused of being “angry and loudly aggressive” in public at a function at The Deck Bar in Frankston hosted by Peninsula Blue Developments to launch the marketing campaign for the Allure Bayside apartment project at Wells St. It is understood that Cr Hampton is angry that Cr Darrel Taylor addresses attendees from the stage after mayor Cr James Dooley has spoken. The deputy mayor accuses two council staff in the pub of responsibility for Cr Taylor’s speaking at the event which they deny. A “visibly agitated” Cr Hampton also approaches Cr Taylor and says “piss off, you cheeky bastard” when Cr Taylor comes off stage.
APRIL 2016: The Times reveals ratepayers may foot the bill for an investigation and independent panel hearing, facilitated by the Municipal Association of Victoria, into Cr Hampton’s behaviour at the Deck Bar. It emerges Cr Taylor also faced questions at the panel hearing after Cr Hampton complained about his behaviour at The Deck on the evening in November.
MAY 2016: Cr Darrel Taylor becomes federal Liberal candidate for Dunkley Chris Crewther’s campaign manager. Mr Crewther narrowly defeats Labor candidate Peta Murphy in the July federal election.
MAY 2016: Councillors clash at a public meeting when mayor Cr James Dooley allows Cr Taylor’s notice of motion to order an internal council audit into an alleged “budget blowout” of the Wells St rejuvenation project. The project was budgeted at $3.58 million but “increased in scope” to about $4.24 million. Cr Aitken introduces amendments to the motion to include audits of other major projects. Council CEO Dennis Hovenden confirms the increase in audit scope means its results will not be known until after October council elections. Cr Aitken says he would “vigorously defend” any allegations of impropriety around his involvement in the Wells St revamp. Cr Dooley cuts the meeting short when Cr Suzette Tayler begins talking about a phone conversation she had with the mayor about the Wells St project before the meeting.
MAY 2016: Frankston Labor MP Paul Edbrooke says he has discussed “some very concerning issues” with Local Government Minister Natalie Hutchins he has with council. “We’re trying to get along with them but they need to know there are boundaries that we can’t overlook,” Mr Edbooke said. “If they get to that stage the government has to step in.” Mr Edbrooke noted council has recently faced scrutiny from “local newspapers” and some of the coverage has been aired on statewide radio and TV news. State governments can suspend councils.
JUNE 2016: Unruly Frankston Council public meetings continue when Cr Suzette Tayler is ejected from the meeting by Cr Dooley as mayor over a stoush between councillors over a request by Cr Darrel Taylor to order 5000 councillor business cards, at his own expense, to use to campaign against sky rail along the Frankston line.
JUNE 2016: The Times reveals an independent two-man panel, facilitated by the Municipal Association of Victoria, found Cr Hampton breached Local Government Act conduct clauses in the way he “aggressively” spoke to two council staff members in public at The Deck bar. Allegations that Cr Darrel Taylor contradicted official council policy when speaking at the Allure Bayside development event are dismissed by the panel. Cr Hampton notes the panel found Cr Taylor “exaggerated” evidence given to the hearing. Cr Taylor says he stands by his statements. Cr Hampton is ordered by the panel to formally apologise to the council employees.
JUNE 2016: Five councillors – Aitken, Cunial, Dooley, Hampton and Mayer – meet behind closed doors to discuss how councillors can comment on social media sites such as Facebook “without bringing council into disrepute”. Crs O’Reilly, Spelman, Tayler and Taylor do not attend the meeting. It later emerges that Cr Dooley has lodged official complaints against Crs Tayler and Taylor over comments they made on Facebook after the council meeting in May debating the Wells St project revamp. Cr Aitken also lodged a complaint against Cr Spelman about comments she made to the press.
JULY 2016: Councillors vote to publicly release the independent panel hearing findings. A heavily redacted version is published on council’s website with the names of several witnesses omitted. The panel found Cr Hampton’s “conduct, involving the pointing of a finger and demanding an answer, was objectively threatening behaviour, in light of how it appeared to bystanders”. Mr Hovenden advises the independent panel hearing cost ratepayers $15,000 in costs and “about $15,000” in council officers’ time.
SEPT 2016: The Times reveals tens of thousands of dollars of ratepayers’ money has been spent investigating several code of conduct complaints by councillors against fellow councillors. Lawyers were paid to adjudicate in three arbitration hearings in the complaint cases lodged by Crs Aitken and Dooley. Lawyers found no merit in three of the complaints, including Cr Aitken’s complaint about Cr Spelman and Cr Dooley complaints about internal council emails sent by Cr Darrel Taylor, but decided phrases used by Cr Taylor and Cr Suzette Tayler in Facebook comments about council matters breached council code of conduct provisions. The arbitrator ruled the pair should publicly apologise to councillors. Lawyers paid by council express concerns over the cost of the hearings and believe some of the complaints could have been resolved before arbitration.
SEPT 2016: Councillors vote to bring all arbitration hearing documents and outcomes into public council but this is later rescinded by a notice of motion introduced by Cr Hampton that orders the documents be kept confidential forever. The documents include criticism of Cr Hampton by an arbitrator over a “derogatory email … using profanity” he sent to Cr Darrel Taylor. Mr Hovenden advises the arbitration hearings cost ratepayers about $19,000 in fees to lawyers and about $10,000 in council officers’ time.
SEPT 2016: The documentation shows there was a failed WorkCover claim lodged by Cr Brian Cunial in February that alleged “bullying, intimidation and ridiculing” by Cr Suzette Tayler. Cr Tayler gave evidence to the WorkCover investigator alleging months of “bullying” against her by some councillors.
OCT 2016: Acting council CEO Tim Frederico says council would not have released any documents related to the arbitration hearings, paid for by ratepayers, due to legal advice sought after the September council meeting.
OCT 2016: Cr Darrel Taylor and Cr Suzette Tayler are ordered by mayor Dooley to apologise to councillors at a special meeting, the final meeting before council elections. The wording is contained in a notice of motion by Cr Colin Hampton.
OCT 2016: A 5-3 majority of councillors vote to not accept apologies from Cr Darrel Taylor and Cr Suzette Tayler amid arguments about the wording being changed. The meeting is interrupted several times by people from the public gallery, including the wife of Cr Darrel Taylor, shouting at councillors. The mayor threatens to call police to have people thrown out of the council chamber.
OCT 2016: Councillors face voters for re-election on 22 October. All nine councillors have put their hand up to run for election.