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Whistleblower wins: Marrickville councillor’s suspension overturned

Marrickville councillor Max Phillips outside court

The appeal of Marrickville Greens councillor Max Phillips against his two month suspension from council has been upheld by the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal.

The suspension was issued by the NSW Division of Local Government after Cr Phillips refused to apologise for informing local residents about a $5 million offer made to council by the property development company Meriton.

The offer, part of a proposed Voluntary Planning Agreement, was made by Meriton in return for Marrickville council agreeing to double the height allowances for the Lewisham Towers development in late 2012.

Cr Phillips had originally argued that council’s code of conduct requires honestly and that if he had apologised, it would have been dishonest.

However, Justice Haylen did not agree with this argument and instead found that the information Cr Phillips released was not confidential.

Prior to the suspension, an independent reviewer found that by revealing information from a confidential business paper, Cr Phillips had breached the code of conduct.

But, Cr Phillips claimed the information had first been delivered at an earlier oral briefing.

“What Justice Haylen is saying is basically that you can’t retrospectively make things confidential if they are already in the public domain,” explained Cr Phillips.

“Council’s reasoning was basically that Meriton asked it to be confidential. Meriton are a private interest and they might want confidentiality … but council has to look at it from the public point of view.”

Having recently been preselected as the Greens candidate for the seat of Summer Hill for the 2015 state election, Cr Phillips has made cleaning up politics one of the main focuses of his campaign.

No Lewisham Towers convenor Tamara Winikoff thinks the tribunal made the logical decision in upholding the appeal.

“Max acted ethically in a way we would expect from our local government representative and for him to be punished for that would have been completely unacceptable,” Ms Winikoff said.

In Ms Winikoff’s opinion, the suspension was a way of trying to “muzzle” councillors from keeping the community updated.

“We’re outraged that there was the intention not to be transparent in disclosing the nature of the relationship with the developer,” she said.

“The matter that was being discussed should never have been regarded as commercial-in-confidence and according to our legal advice, that was the case.”

But independent councillor Victor Macri, who was mayor of Marrickville at the time Cr Phillips disclosed information about the offer, thinks the tribunal’s decision is “appalling”.

“Max clearly did the wrong thing and they saw differently. Max blatantly got papers marked as confidential and gave them to the media,” Cr Macri argued.

Cr Macri explained that the offer made by Meriton was not a firm commitment, and that, as a result, the appropriate time to consult the public would have come once council had made a decision about the offer.

“It was a proposal that had to be nuanced and massaged. [It] was an offer. We had to look at it and say we can accept this, or no, we can’t accept this. So, how can you go to the media and say that [before council had made a decision]?”

Recently, a competition between architectural firms for a new design for the Lewisham Towers development was won by Sydney-based firm PTW Architects, and Meriton is now their client.

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