Who is Peter Hurst? - depaNews August 2010

 

IRC acts to protect members at Wagga Wagga - and sets best practice model for all councils

At last, some proper recognition of a Council's duty of care when employees reputations are attacked

depa has had a long history of successfully acting to support members treated poorly by councillors behaving badly and/or local developers - Parramatta twice, Mudgee/Mid Western, Eurobodalla, Snowy River and Nambucca. Local government is a very easy target and no more so for professionals working in strategic planning and development control. After all, every application that draws objections will invariably end up with someone unhappy with someone else, often someone doing nothing more that discharging their obligations under a planning instrument or the BCA.

Everyone is familiar with local dissidents, loonies and others launching unwarranted attacks on staff in public or at council meetings or even the local press without employees having the opportunity to defend themselves - and the Council which employs them often reluctant to acknowledge that they have a duty of care to protect employees in the firing line.

But no longer.

Who is Peter Hurst and why is he so unkind?

Peter Hurst is a local builder of domestic dwellings in Wagga Wagga. He is also a local heavyweight in the Housing Industry Association and has taken a particular dislike to Wagga Wagga Council which, after a long period of being under-resourced and pretty relaxed about development standards, started to take the job seriously and discharge their obligations to the community under planning instruments.

So distressed that he thought it appropriate to lodge significant complaints against Council employees involved in the management of planning and development control and then to distribute that complaint as broadly as possible within the local community, anyone in Government who would listen and, aided and abetted by the local rag the Daily Advertiser, ran a vendetta against the Council.

We thought the investigation of the complaint took a little bit longer than we would have liked and we filed a dispute with the Industrial Relations Commission to both speed up the investigation and seek the Commission's assistance to remind the Council of its responsibilities to protect staff and their reputations against defamatory and slanderous claims made by people who thought they could do so with impunity.

In a significant precedent, Deputy President Grayson issued a Statement on 11 August after the Council had dismissed all of the allegations made by Mr Hurst. Amongst other things the Commission called for the Council to:

  • "obtain legal advice as to whether any employee has been defamed by any person and in particular by the complainant, Peter Hurst and the Wagga Wagga Daily Advertiser. And in relation to the Daily Advertiser in editorial and journalistic content and the publication of blogs and thereafter that the council take any legal action consistent with that advice."
  • "prepare a letter to the complainant, Mr Hurst, expressly rejecting the allegations made by the complainant in relation to personal gain, breaches of the Code of Conduct and alleged attempt to deceive by incorrectly reporting development applications." The Commission also recommended that agreement be reached between the Council and depa on the content and terms of that letter
 
  • hand-deliver the dismissal of the allegations to Mr Hurst and call for his apology in an agreed form "to be published as broadly as the allegations have been published by the complainant and that the complainant indicate genuine remorse and a commitment to develop better interpersonal relationships in the future"
 
  • to explore the publication of the letter dismissing the allegations "as broadly as possible in the local media and, in the absence of proper publication, be the subject of a paid advertisement, in particular in the aforementioned Daily Advertiser"
  • to convene a meeting "and extend invitations to the complainant, Mr Hurst, and other critical and/or hostile builders and developers in the City of Wagga Wagga, with a view to acknowledging the factual inaccuracies of the complaint and with a view to developing a positive civil and professional relationships for the future, with a further aim of securing an undertaking from the critics that the media campaign being waged against the Council is at an end."
 
  • "without delay, develop and implement a policy around its duty of care to employees and around its need within the employment relationship to protect them against personal and reputational damage in the future."
The Council has already had its lawyers write to the Dirty Advertiser to secure the removal of offensive material from their site and the lawyers are reviewing all relevant material to see if employees have been defamed and then to act on that advice.

Mr Hurst had the dismissal of his complaint hand-delivered but we are waiting for the apology requested in the Council’s letter.

This will be a measure of the man. We hope he will be big enough to acknowledge his mistakes, apologise appropriately and get on with the job. We will see.

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