City Hub

New councillors under spotlight over possible conflicts of interest

By Andrew Woodhouse,



The public trust is a nebulous concept. But it has practical ramifications.

With pre-poll voting for the City of Sydney elections on September 10 now underway, voters are in their cardboard corrals with sharpened HB pencils poised, deciding how the city has been run and, more importantly, how it should be run.

Running for council is dangerous for candidates. Their personal and professional lives and views are under the microscope and compared to their parties’ policies to expose inconsistencies. Psephologists, originally the pebble counters in ancient Greece elections, will scrutineer ballot papers for validity very carefully in this tight election race. Every single vote is crucial.

But every elected councillor and the Lord Mayor, has ethical and legal duties to constituents.

Their ethical duty is to vote and remain impartial, free from financial influence and not pre-decide decisions. Their legal duty is a clear injunction under section 232(2) of the Local Government Act: ”The role of a councillor is, as an elected person, to represent the interests of the residents and ratepayers, provide leadership and guidance to the community and facilitate communication between the community and the council.”

Interestingly, responsibilities to the new businesses voters seems to be overlooked, unless they are actual ratepayers and not just shop owners, for example.

The team for Clover Moore’s party includes distinguished architect, Mr Philip Thalis, founding principal of Hill Thalis Architecture + Urban Projects. His firm was part of a design collaborative which won the $6 billion international design competition for Barangaroo, since pushed aside by Paul Keating. Clover also opposes the current scheme.

Mr Thalis was awarded a $15,000 grant in 2011 by Clover’s council for his co-authored book, “Public Sydney: Drawing the City”, published 2013, with a second print run due out this year, according to his firm’s website.

A brief on-line search of council’s website reveals dozens of references to his company and DAs and other matters since Clover Moore became Lord Mayor.

The latest was DA 2015/1896 worth $1,048,373 to renovate his own office building at 68 Wentworth Avenue, Surry Hills, approved by Clover’s council on 11th April 2016.

Hill Thalis is currently involved in a City of Sydney project in Chinatown called Thomas Street Cloud Gate. The firm has also been awarded an on-going planning design role as part of an elite council-appointed “Design Consultancy Panel for Public Domain Projects” with their costs schedule pre-approved.

Who benefits? Mr Thalis benefits, that’s who, with ripple effects flowing onto others.

So what? Isn’t he entitled to profit from his hard work and expertise in a free market economy?

Yes, I say, but not if it creates conflicts of interests or bruises that fragile petal, the public trust.

So if Mr Thalis is deciding another Clover-inspired milk crate artwork, or mega-DA urban design plan involving competitors’ to his own firm, how can we know he’ll decide the matter impartially  if he is already intimately connected with it, or if he will be paid (twice) to comment on it as a panelist as well, or if it might become part of a Clover council-subsidised book?

This all seems too cute.

Will he stand aside from voting? If so, how can he represent constituents by abstaining? This is not the job he’s paid for. In any normal business such absences or inability to perform work leads to replacement. Lower standards or expectations don’t apply to our council. His vote then becomes a vote made when you’re not voting, a Clayton’s vote. And it will make the word “vote” a four-letter word for residents, whose right to live in their chosen environment is constantly under attack.

Mr Thalis might as well stay home watching the 12th season of the TV series, The Block. Yawn.

Such a councillor position becomes unsustainable and unworkable.

People want the three Cs of good town planning applied: consistency, clarity and certainty.

Mr Thalis may well add another three: confusion, chaos and commotion.

It’s not too late for Mr Thalis to withdraw his candidature or resign from the design panel and withdraw all his firm’s current and future projects from council before 10th September by way of a legal undertaking.

It is in his interest and, importantly, in the public interest.


Andrew Woodhouse is the President, Potts Point & Kings Cross Heritage Conservation Society