– Andrew McEwen says he’ll fight charge
COUNCILLOR Andrew McEwen wasn’t having a good day last Wednesday.
He’d just learned, only the day before, that the Local Government Inspectorate was charging him with one count of “misuse of position”, an offence for which there is a maximum penalty of five years’ jail.
He has been summonsed to appear in Korumburra Magistrates’ Court on Thursday, July 4 to face his accusers.
As he limped into his first council meeting in more than a month on Wednesday, on a single crutch, suffering from the effects of a partial knee reconstruction operation, his fetching green and grey umbrella blew inside out in the ferocious storm leaving him exposed to a cold deluge.
But there was work to be done inside, at the makeshift council chambers, held in the Leongatha RSL.
And Cr McEwen was to play a crucial role in moving a motion, calling on council to press ahead with a 3 per cent reduction in rates at the eleventh hour.
He claimed he hadn’t specifically answered the call to get off his recovery bed just for that reason, but as it turned out, the vote was tight… very tight.
Cr McEwen moved the motion, with Cr Frank Hirst seconding it, and then spoke strongly about how a 3 per cent reduction was achievable.
He said complaints about the high level of South Gippsland Shire rates, closely followed by grumbles over gravel roads, was a constant refrain. While he acknowledged that the shire’s thinly-spaced rural population was forced to pay heavily for the upkeep of a large inventory of roads and infrastructure, he said he believed there was room in the budget for the shire to honour an earlier commitment to reduce rates by 3 per cent.
A petition signed by 432 people calling for the same was on the council table.
He gave credit to shire officers for achieving efficiencies of 1 per cent this year but he said he believed a zero rate increase or even a 3 per cent reduction was possible.
“I am not suggesting that we curtail or reduce services. This can occur through prudent productivity savings and looking at some slack money in our budget which I think is sitting there.”
Despite warnings by Cr Aaron Brown that such a move would have a cumulative impact, over the forward estimates, of wiping off $18.5 million, and make the shire unable to match government grants, the vote to pursue a 3 per cent reduction passed on the casting vote of the Mayor Cr Don Hill; with Crs McEwen, Hirst and Hill in favour and Crs Brown, Argento and Skinner against. Cr Steve Finlay was out of the room due to what he perceived as a conflict of interest.
Will fight the charges
Cr McEwen would not comment about being charged by the Local Government Inspectorate beyond saying the council had issued a media release saying he would fight the charges.
“Cr McEwen has indicated that he will vigorously defend the charge,” said Cr Hill last week.
“As this is a matter before the courts, no further comment will be made at this time.”
Cr McEwen has not resigned or taken leave of absence, beyond missing the afternoon’s ordinary council meeting.
He may, however, have attended his last meeting with the Local Government Minister due to receive a report from the Commission of Inquiry on Thursday, June 13.
Cr McEwen’s charge relates to a claim he supplied a resident with confidential council information in January 2018.
The resident, at the time, was involved in a proceeding against South Gippsland Shire Council in the Supreme Court.
Under section 76D(1) of the Local Government Act 1989, it is an offence for a person holding the position of councillor to misuse their position by making improper use of information to gain or attempt to gain, directly or indirectly, an advantage for another person.
It has previously been alleged that the legal team, representing Bald Hills Wind Farm complainants, used the information, allegedly provided by Cr McEwen, to sharpen their attack on the shire.
The penalty for the offence is 600 penalty units or imprisonment for five years or both. As at the date of the offence, the value of a penalty unit was $158.57, making the maximum penalty available $95,142.
Anyone convicted of this offence is also disqualified from holding the office of councillor for eight years.
“As the matter is now before the courts, no further comment can be made at this time,” the Local Government Inspectorate said.