Ombudsman: Grant mayor committed misconduct

MISCONDUCT FINIDNG: South Australian Ombudsman Wayne Lines has recommended Grant District mayor Richard Sage undertake conflict of interest training after he was found to have committed misconduct by failing to declare a conflict regarding the mayoral allowance and private use component of the mayoral vehicle.

By Raquel Mustillo

THE State Ombudsman has ruled Grant District mayor Richard Sage committed misconduct in public administration by failing to declare with a conflict of interest and refusing to follow council’s Charter of Agreed Behaviours.

At tonight’s council meeting, Grant elected members will consider three recommendations made by South Australian Ombudsman Wayne Lines, including a requirement Mr Sage undertake conflict of interest training and reprimand Mr Sage should he fail to commit to the charter.

A further recommendation requires Mr Sage make a public apology at a council meeting in relation to failing to declare with a conflict of interest and refusing to follow council’s charter, which was adopted by council in June 2019.

In a 21 page report, Mr Lines said the referral “arose from more than one report to [the] Office of Public Integrity”, adding he did not consider it is necessary to disclose their identities.

It is understood the complaints were made by council staff members and elected members, with a number of co-complainants submitting a joint statement in response to Mr Lines’ provisional report saying Mr Sage’s refusal to abide with the Charter of Behaviour had “wreaked havoc on the council resulting in the deputy chief executive not taking the chief executive position and then leaving the council”.

Former Grant District Council deputy chief executive Jane Fetherstonhaugh was contacted for comment, but said she was unable to speak publicly on the matter due to signing a confidentiality deed with council.

The joint statement – which is believed to have been penned by a group of elected members – said the penalty was “not severe enough”, with co-complainants saying “it was good [Mr Sage] was found guilty however the consequences are weak considering what they could be”.

The charter – which operates in addition to the Code of Conduct – sets out behavioural expectations including restrictions on elected members engaging with certain staff, logging mayoral appointments, events and meetings and strengthened requirements regarding reimbursement of travel and other costs.

In response to enquires by Mr Lines, Mr Sage said he had not committed to the charter because it was “not compliant with my beliefs”, “not lawful” and that it was “still a work in progress and a point of conjecture”.

But Mr Sage submitted allowing access to his “confidential” work roster and “having the ability to predetermine my discussions with ministers etc” was not appropriate.

The civic leader struck out at Grant councillors, telling the ombudsman “the majority of elected members do not understand or respect the ‘confidentiality’ clause” and claimed elected members “continue to breach their own Code of Conduct and Expected Behaviours under their own policies”.

Grant chief executive officer Darryl Whicker also expressed concerns about the charter potentially conflicting with the Local Government Act and the implications of recommending compliance.

But Mr Lines said he was not concerned about conflicting provisions, saying any concerns should be raised with the council for amendment if necessary.

At a special meeting October 1, 2019, council discussed amending the allowance and support policy to exclude the private use component of the mayoral vehicle.

Ahead of the meeting, Ms Fetherstonhaugh – who was acting chief executive – sent an email to elected members advising that Mr Sage would need to declare a material conflict of interest and leave the chambers and that the deputy mayor would act as the presiding member.

However, Mr Sage chaired the meeting and did not declare or deal with a conflict of interest, telling the ombudsman he did not consider that he had a conflict of interest as he was “sure that it was going to play out as it did with the assistance of some senior managers to further restrain and humiliate the mayor”.

But Mr Lines said Mr Sage’s assertion was “somewhat inconsistent” and ruled the mayor stood to suffer the loss of the ability to use the mayoral vehicle for personal reasons, as well as the financial benefit of 3000km of total annual personal usage of the vehicle.

Mr Lines said sanctions or any other actions in regard to enforcing compliance with the charter would result in a potential personal loss as it “could result in his privileges as mayor being removed”.

While Mr Sage said he had only been given four hours’ notice that the agenda item was to be discussed, Mr Lines believed it did not prevent Mr Sage from dealing with the matter as required by state legislation.

“…my view is that Mayor Sage committed misconduct in public administration… by failing to declare and appropriately deal with a material conflict of interest,” Mr Lines said.

However, Mr Lines did not believe Mr Sage committed misconduct by failing to declare a conflict of interest in relation to an item relating to the mayoral vehicle or that he committed misconduct by disclosing information concerning the chief executive officer recruitment process.

In response to the ruling, Mr Sage said he “allowed my emotions to rule my actions”, further claiming the agenda and resolutions “pre-empted an outcome thus being determined prior to the meeting”.

“I felt that the resolutions listed were pre-determined,” he said.

Mr Sage added he had not signed up to the charter as he had “difficulty with the expectations of access to my diary that contained my work roster for various reasons including confidentiality”.

He labelled his refusal to abide by the charter as a “mistake” and said as the charter was a work in progress, elected members needed to continue working on compliance.

The civic leader apologised for his failings in a written statement tabled in this week’s agenda and is expected to formally address council at tonight’s meeting.

Mr Sage did not respond to The Border Watch’s enquiries for comment.