Wagga council boss Alan Eldridge has defended claims he acted improperly by failing to disclose his son’s involvement in a property development subject to an application for rezoning from farmland to housing.
On three occasions between February and May 2016 – while Mr Eldridge was effectively running the planning department – he stayed in chambers while councillors debated a deal his son had a financial stake in.
Mr Eldridge’s son, Joshua, is one of two company directors of Inglewood Estate Wagga Pty Ltd, which applied to rezone 288 hectares of farmland at Gumly Gumly into housing lots.
Inglewood Estate Wagga Pty Ltd is listed under the same postal address as a conglomerate of insurance and property companies founded by Alan Eldridge, who is a forensic accountant by trade.
Council’s policy states if there is a “reasonable likelihood or expectation of appreciable financial gain or loss to the person” or a relative, they must disclose the conflict and “must not be present at, or in sight of, the meeting” at any time the matter is being discussed.
While Mr Eldridge now admits he has a pecuniary interest in the ongoing application, he denied any knowledge of his son’s involvement at the time, which is a valid excuse under the law.
Clouding matters further, council’s newly-minted senior manager responsible for “city strategy”, Tristan Kell, was employed in December 2015 at Joshua Eldridge’s instruction to draw up development plans for Inglewood Estate.
Before being employed by council, Mr Kell signed off on the application for rezoning, which required an amendment to council’s key planning document.
Alan Eldridge said both he and Mr Kell will not have any ongoing involvement in the planning proposal.
“I was not aware of my son’s involvement with the planning proposal until recently,” Mr Eldridge said.
“As I have now been made aware, I have declared a pecuniary interest.
“However… the Local Government Act makes it clear that I had no pecuniary interest in the matter until I became aware of my son’s interest.
“Any claims otherwise are incorrect and I have not breached the pecuniary interest provisions of the Local Government Act.”
Senior lecturer with the Centre for Local Government at University of Technology Sydney, Bligh Grant, said Mr Eldridge’s conduct didn’t pass the “pub test”.
While Joshua Eldridge claims he doesn’t have equity in Inglewood Estate, Dr Grant said that was irrelevant.
“If the redevelopment goes extremely well and the son’s real estate business profits handsomely from selling the lots, it should have been declared up front,” Dr Grant said.
Wagga Ratepayers Group founder Wes Fang has called on Mr Eldridge to stand down while the matter is independently investigated.
“Should he refuse to to do this, we believe he must immediately be stood aside by the elected councillors,” Mr Fang said.
“It is up to the elected officials to protect the reputation of council and we urge them to act swiftly and decisively.”