Marrickville councillor wears censure as ‘badge of honour’

Marrickville Greens councillor Max Phillips has vowed to continue his campaign against secret development deals despite being censured at a Marrickville Council meeting last month.

Cr Phillips was censured for refusing to apologise for releasing a confidential business paper to The Sydney Morning Herald and ABC Radio. Conservative independent Mayor Victor Macri joined four Labor and two Liberal councillors in voting for the motion.

“Making decisions behind closed doors undermines confidence in the planning system,” said Cr Phillips, defending the public release of a $5 million offer from developers Meriton to allow significant changes to their Lewisham Towers development.

The Meriton proposal was made in a private meeting with councillors on November 27, 2012, and offered $5 million in return for a change in the height of one of the buildings from 10 to 20 storeys.

The proposed changes breach current council planning laws, but a negotiation of this kind is allowed under Voluntary Planning Agreement legislation.

“This is a big development that will have a big impact on the community,” said Cr Phillips.

“Council should make all major decisions like this in public and I didn’t see any valid reason why this proposal should have been kept confidential.”

But Mayor Macri said Cr Phillips’ actions undermined confidence in the council’s development processes.

“It brings the whole place into disrepute,” the mayor said.

“It’s a blight on council and shows we’re incompetent. When you go to the public you want to give them accurate and worthy details.”

The censure motion came after formal complaints from five councillors resulted in an independent review from mediator Kathy Thane. The review recommended Cr Phillips be “formally censured” and “required to apologise to Council and Meriton unreservedly for his action”.

While he concedes it was not clearly stated at the beginning of the meeting, Mayor Macri said Cr Phillips was aware that the proposal was confidential.

“We deal with these types of proposals all the time. Max knows the rules and he knew exactly what he was doing here,” he said.

But despite accepting the legality of the proposal, Cr Phillips said he was “wearing this as a badge of honour”.

“These are the parties [Liberal and Labor] who’ve been taking millions from developers for years. I’ve had nobody tell me they think I’ve done the wrong thing and I’m happy to let the public judge my actions.”

Cr Phillips said the unanimous rejection of the Meriton offer justified his actions.

“Several councillors have hinted to me they might have changed their decisions if the information hadn’t been in the public domain,” he said.

The council has referred the matter to the Division of Local Government but a spokeswoman from the Division said that “without any further significant breaches” further actions against Cr Phillips were unlikely.

The controversy over planning is unlikely to go away with further VPA proposals currently before the council.

A Greens motion to ensure greater transparency in the VPA process was rejected at a March council meeting and the party has vowed to launch a community campaign to raise awareness about this issue in coming months.

“We have three more of these types of proposals in the pipeline and I would happily do the same thing again to ensure the community is properly consulted in all stages of the process,” Cr Phillips said.

“We will be doing all we can to ensure Marrickville residents are fully informed about big developments going on in their communities that will impact on their quality of life.”

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