STIRLING mayor Mark Irwin is under fire from residents after he and the city’s two most senior public servants shared a luncheon with the developers behind the controversial Karrinyup West project.
Mr Irwin, CEO Stuart Jardine and planning director Stevan Rodic were invited to share a front-row table at a Property Council of WA lunch on August 28 with representatives from AMP Capital – with WA premier Mark McGowan the keynote speaker.
AMP has a development application before Stirling for three high-density towers on the site of the Karrinyup shopping centre, which has been met with furious opposition from locals who have already collected more than 700 signatures on a petition calling for it to be scaled down.
Former Stirling councillor and long-term property council member Paul Collins called out the city’s hierarchy at the council’s September 8 meeting, saying it was inappropriate to have accepted the invitation.
“Why anyone from local government would want to be on a developer’s table at a property council function is beyond belief,” he later told the Voice.
“It’s even worse when that developer has lodged probably the largest, most expensive development application in Stirling this year.
“It’s a perceived conflict of interest that could lead to actual conflicts; it brings into question impartiality and the ease of access which developers have in getting to the three most senior people at the City of Stirling.”
But Mr Irwin defended the luncheon gathering, telling the chamber “maintaining relationships with developers is one of the important ways the city ensures … the economic benefit of development”.
He said the participants had paid for their own tickets and denied it would compromise the city’s decision-making.
But WA Party founder and local government expert Julie Matheson said under Stirling’s code of conduct, the trio should have knocked back the invitation from AMP.
“It’s very important that all councillors, elected members of a local government and planners do not attend events with developers, because there is a perception of favouritism and bias,” Ms Matheson told the Voice.
“It just appears like it’s a club – an impenetrable club that residents and ratepayers can’t penetrate.”
Ms Matheson described the mayor’s response at the council meeting as “dismissive” and said there was no evidence that maintaining relationships with developers was advantageous to electors.
“The mayor and the councillors are making a decision on a development application which affects the electors of their district. Under section 2.10 of the [local government] act the role of the councillors and the mayor is to represent the electors – not the state government or AMP Capital’s financial interests,” she said.
Former political journalist Peter Kennedy, now an adjunct professor at Notre Dame university, warned that councillors needed to be careful when dealing with developers to ensure there was no suggestions of a conflict of interest.
“The perception is important – everything must be done by the book. That’s why ratepayers are concerned. The perception of meetings and social gatherings does raise doubts in ratepayers’ minds and that’s understandable.
“It’s obviously a very sensitive issue – things like that do understandably cause concern. The whole process must be transparent. Everyone must know what’s going on,” Prof Kennedy said.
The Voice sent Mr Irwin a comprehensive list of questions, but he refused to put his name to the answers; instead the council’s senior coordinator of communications Caitlin Tiller sent the paper a response directing us to attribute the comments to a “spokesperson”.
“Attendance at the lunch did not compromise the city’s impartiality,” the response said, noting the lunch was pre-approved under the city’s events policy.
“The city has a reputation for maintaining the highest level of integrity… there is no evidence that the city’s impartiality has been compromised and it is inappropriate to suggest otherwise.”
During the September council meeting, Mr Irwin pointed out that when staff or councillors met developers at the city’s headquarters, a probity officer attended, but when the Voice asked why a chatty meeting over drinks and canapes should be treated differently, the council responded: “A probity officer is required when meeting to discuss a specific application.”
Mr Irwin also revealed that being at the front table earned him a chance to catch the premier’s ear, which resulted in a meeting the following day.
The Voice asked the premier whether it was appropriate for developers to be acting as intermediaries in order for mayors to speak with him and how the opponents of the Karrinyup West development would feel hearing him describe their ilk as “naysayers and critics” while the mayor was sharing a drink with the developer directly in front of him.
But his senior media advisor Lannie Le-Patterson batted off our questions: “These questions are better placed for the City of Stirling and the mayor,” Ms Le-Patterson said.
by ASTRID DAINTON