By ALLISON HORE
Inner West mayor Darcy Byrne is feeling the burn of a potential suspension he faces as a result of a NSW Office of Local Government (OLG) inquiry.
The local government watchdog accused the mayor of an “abuse of power” as a result of a 2019 council meeting where he used a council vote to quash social media comments on the pages of other councillors which he saw as defamatory.
The OLG says that Mayor Byrne failed to declare a significant non-pecuniary interest during the motion to force an apology from two councillors whose followers made comments on their Facebook pages he said painted him as “corrupt.”
In response to a draft development control plan for the Victoria Road precinct in Marrickville, followers of councillors Colin Hesse and Pauline Lockie accused Mayor Byrne and other councillors of being “in bed with developers.” Byrne said they should take responsibility for the comments made on their pages. The vote calling on Mr. Hesse and Ms. Lockie to apologise was passed.
But the local council watchdog claimed the incident was a misuse of council resources to “address personal grievances” and said it gave Mr. Byrne “tangible advantages in defamation proceedings foreshadowed by him.”
Speaking in front of a NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal last week, OLG barrister Matthew Cobb-Clark called the move “an abuse of power.”
But Mayor Byrne’s barrister, Ian Latham, disagreed with the claim the move was personally motivated by the mayor. He argued Mr. Byrne’s call for apology was also defending the reputation of the other councillors mentioned in the posts.
“I think when the tribunal looks at both the definitions of a non-pecuniary interest and also the interest actually alleged, I think pretty comfortably the tribunal would say, ‘this is not one of those’,” he argued.
Mayor Byrne raised questions as to the timing of the investigation, which he said was motivated by him being a vocal critic of the OLG’s delivery of the Stronger Communities Fund grants.
The majority of the grant money from the scheme, delivered in the lead up to the 2019 state election, went to local government areas with Liberal members.
Just days before Mayor Byrne was due to give evidence before a parliamentary inquiry the OLG announced they would be investigating the 2019 apology incident.
“It’s no coincidence that the OLG has began seeking my removal from public office following the discovery of a secret slush fund overseen by the OLG, and our ongoing advocacy to bring the facts about this rort out into the light,” Mr. Byrne said in his statements before the inquiry into the grants.
OLG chief executive Tim Hurst hit back and said the tribunal was in no way influenced by the upper house inquiry.