City of Sydney councillors from across the political spectrum have supported the Alternative Media Group of Australia, publishers of this newspaper, after representatives of Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore threatened legal action over a story published in City News on September 5.
The story reported the experience of Surry Hills resident Luke Harper, whose 2011 development application (DA) for home improvements and renovations was rejected despite the City of Sydney’s own planners recommending its approval. The NSW Land and Environment Court subsequently overruled the decision.
Mr Harper alleged matters entirely unrelated to his DA had been taken into account – a belief supported by the unearthing of a Lord Mayoral briefing note on the DA, which identified him as “a key objector to the Bourke St cycleway” and which claimed his architects had “proven difficult for Council staff to work with in the past”.
As reported on September 5, Councillor Angela Vithoulkas has reignited the case with calls for an independent, external investigation.
The Alternative Media Group of Australia has since received a letter from lawyers representing Ms Moore alleging the City News report defamed their client.
Specifically, Makinson & d’Apice Lawyers took issue with Mr Harper’s published allegation that Ms Moore’s behavior was “unprofessional and corrupt”.
While Mr Harper made no allegation of financial corruption, he believes due process was corrupted.
The Makinson d’Apice letter stated: “We demand that you make amends in accordance with Part 3, Section 15 of the Defamation Act 2005.”
The letter insisted the Alternative Media Group of Australia remove Mr Harper’s allegations from its website, remove online comments made by members of the public, “publish a retraction and full apology in terms which are satisfactory to our client”, and give an undertaking “not to communicate the matters complained of or anything similar in the future”.
But the publisher has received strong backing from within Town Hall, with councillors of various political stripes expressing support.
Greens Councillor Irene Doutney said the Lord Mayor should not try to muzzle the media.
“Freedom of the press is important,” she told City News. “This issue has come up, and it should be reported without interference. It has to be as investigative as the journalists feel it needs to be.”
Ms Doutney admitted she initially voted with the Lord Mayor to reject Mr Harper’s DA in July 2011 but said she “did not have all the information” at the time.
“There is a problem in that information included in Lord Mayoral briefing notes is not shared with the other councillors,” she said.
At the opposite end of the political spectrum, Liberal Councillor Christine Forster also defended the Alternative Media Group of Australia’s right to report on the matter.
“As a journalist myself of more than 20 years’ standing, I think it’s crucial that the media is able to freely scrutinise and report on the operations, activities and decisions of the City of Sydney,” said Ms Forster.
Her Labor opponent Councillor Linda Scott also expressed support.
“I am deeply committed to the principle of press freedom,” said Ms Scott. “I attended this year’s Media, Arts and Entertainment Alliance Press Freedom Dinner, and strongly believe that the ability of Australia’s media to publish independently is a pillar that our democratic society rests on.”
Living Sydney Councillor Angela Vithoulkas said: “Freedom of the press is a vital part of a modern culture. Without it, there is the potential for abuse of power and misinformation.”
She added: “It is a very sad indictment on the process of consultation if the people of Sydney cannot make a comment on a proposed development without fear of possible reprisals.”
Liberal Councillor Edward Mandla opined that the Lord Mayor had overreacted to the City News article because the matter involved the City’s cycleways – a pet project of the Lord Mayor.
“My personal observation of the Lord Mayor is that she distances herself from the Planning Department and is reluctant to give them any direction. But I have noticed that whenever the topic of cycleways pops up, the eyes of the Lord Mayor and the Clover Moore Party councillors glaze over,” said Mr Mandla.
“It’s a mass ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ experience. Tempers flare and otherwise rational councillors go quite loony in fierce defence of their sacred bike path strategies – ironic for a group that are mostly incapable of cycling themselves.”
Mr Mandla called for a full, independent investigation into the matter, including interviews with ex-Lord Mayoral staff and former City of Sydney planners.
But a spokesperson for Ms Moore reiterated previous claims that the information in her briefing note had “no impact” on Council decisions.
“The staff member who initially included the irrelevant line in the note has not worked in the Office of the Lord Mayor for a number of years,” the spokesperson added.
The spokesperson would not say if Ms Moore was proceeding with her threatened legal action, but said any action would not be funded by ratepayers.
“The Lord Mayor looks after her own legal matters … as per guidelines in the Councillor’s Expenses Policy.”
Mr Harper said he had made submissions to NSW Local Government Minister Don Page and the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC).
He said similar DAs at nearby homes had been approved by Council “without having to resort to the Land and Environment Court”, noting that his DA for internal renovations, rear extensions, garage modifications, attic storage and an in-ground pool was initially rejected even though a neighbour’s DAs for rear extensions, garage modifications, attic storage and an in-ground pool was approved.
The neighbour’s architects were Cracknell and Lonergan – the same architects employed by Mr Harper, who had been described in the Lord Mayor’s briefing note as “difficult to work with in the past”.
“If you upset [the Lord Mayor] then the sort of abuses that we have been subject to are what you can expect,” claimed Mr Harper.
The Lord Mayoral spokesperson insisted Mr Harper’s DA was rejected due to numerous breaches of planning controls, and noted that the Land and Environment Court “did not criticise the City’s decision-making, nor was the City ordered to pay Mr Harper’s costs”.
The spokesperson welcomed ICAC’s involvement and said the City would also make submissions to the corruption watchdog.
“The claims being made against the City and the Lord Mayor are baseless and the Lord Mayor has asked the CEO to refer all material to ICAC so that can be confirmed.”