Lawyer questions code charges
Saturday, 2nd July, 2016
By Craig Brealey
A lawyer who worked for the Attorney General’s Department in Canberra has questioned the validity of Code of Conduct charges laid against local councillor Peter Black.
The breaches allegedly committed by Councillor Black appeared to consist of nothing more than a democratically-elected representative stating his opinion on civic affairs, lawyer Diana Ferry told the BDT yesterday.
According to the complaints lodged against him by the previous management of City Council, Clr Black’s comments in the media had cast aspersions on Council’s administration.
The city’s longest serving councillor, former mayor and State MP announced his resignation from Council at its monthly meeting this week, saying he had neither the will nor the money to fight the allegations.
Code of Conduct breaches were also levelled at least two other unnamed councillors on Wednesday night.
The charges come just two months from Local Government elections, and are the first laid in the four years since this Council was elected.
The alleged breaches by Clr Black would appear to relate to what he has said in interviews with the BDT and in his regular “Black Column” published in these pages.
In these articles he criticised such things as the administration of the Council itself, its management of the Regional Art Gallery, its decision to move the city library to Argent Street, and its postponement of audit committee meetings.
Ms Ferry told the BDT that she would not offer a legal opinion on the alleged breaches because local government law was not her field.
But she said she felt qualified to comment given her background as a specialist in administrative law and having worked in the public service in Canberra for 17 years in the departments of the Attorney General and Communications.
Ms Ferry was born and raised in Broken Hill and returned to live here last year.
She said she had been following the affairs of City Council and was surprised to read about what had happened to Clr Black.
“My immediate thought was that it seemed very odd,” she said. “It looked like Council was trying to dampen down dissenting opinion.
“I do not want to see good councillors have their reputations tarnished and besmirched for making what might very well be valid criticism and subjecting the Council management to proper scrutiny.
“There are legitimate questions that members of the community want to know about.”
According to the Local Government Act, one of the duties of a councillor is to “represent the interests of residents and ratepayers”. Ms Ferry said, in this, Clr Black had apparently fulfilled his duty and she wondered how he could be prosecuted for it.
“What section of the Code of Conduct are they relying on? Are they saying that only the general manager and the mayor can speak publicly?
“By my understanding, it is not a breach to state your open and honest opinion.
“Under defamation law, all you need to say is that it was your honest and reasonably-held belief.
“It is then up to (the complainant) to prove that it has damaged their reputation.”
Ms Ferry also asked why Clr Black and the other councillors had been denied their right to an informal hearing with Council management that could have settled the matters raised.
“As a lawyer, that says to me that there is a circumvention of proper process and a lack of natural justice,” she said.