COCKBURN council is imploding, with a simmering internal dispute sparking legal action between councillors and complaints to the local government standards panel.
Earlier this week former deputy mayor Lee-Anne Smith launched legal action against central ward councillor Chontelle Stone (formerly Cr Sands, she’s reverted to her maiden name after becoming engaged to a new beau).
It follows last week’s settling of a defamation suit Cr Smith raised against Cockburn’s new deputy mayor Lara Kirkwood, prior to the latter’s election to council last year.
Although Cr Stone said she couldn’t reveal any details about Cr Smith’s action, she told the Herald it would make working together on council or committees very difficult.
It’s not the first time the pair have crossed swords.
Last year Cr Stone led a push for the council to pass a vote of no confidence in the former deputy mayor and temporarily strip her of her allowances.
During the subsequent special council meeting on August 22, CEO Stephen Cain revealed during question time that staff had lodged a “significant amount of complaints” against Cr Smith during the year and others had “come to the city in writing”, though none of the various internal and external committees she sat on had raised issues. He’d passed on the complaints to all councillors.
Cr Stone’s motion was lost as it needed an absolute majority of council and the final vote was a 5/5 split.
But that wasn’t the end of the matter, as Cr Stone subsequently lodged a successful complaint against Cr Smith with the Local Government Standards Panel.
The panel found Cr Smith breached two regulations of the local government rules of conduct during the August 22 meeting by falsely claiming Cr Stone was being investigated by the local government department and had lied about an impartiality interest.
Cr Smith told the panel she had intended to lodge complaints with the local government department herself – which would have sparked the investigation she’d referred to – but the stress and public humiliation of the no confidence motion “made it difficult to think straight”.
Email exchanges between Crs Smith, Sands and the city’s governance director showed the impartiality interest was disputed, but the standards panel said to describe Cr Stone’s actions as lying was a “gross exaggeration”.
In June this year it ordered Cr Smith to publicly apologise to Cr Stone, and for the CEO to organise a public censure.
While the censure has been published, there’s been no apology as yet and the matter is now before the State Administrative Tribunal.
But Cr Smith got her apology from Cr Kirkwood last week, as well as a $20,000 payment.
In the apology, Cr Kirkwood said statements she’d made to the Herald and WA Today which suggested Cr Smith had bullied and harassed her during a 2018 by-election were “false”. They had hurt Cr Smith and “impacted negatively” on her reputation.
During campaigning Cr Smith contacted one of the potential candidates, Tony Toledo, urging him to drop out of the race so he didn’t split the Labor vote and hand the election to Ms Kirkwood, also suggesting they “sabotage” a candidate forum being organised by councillor Chamonix Terblanche.
Cr Smith considered her approach standard political campaigning, but Mr Toledo took umbrage, releasing her texts on social media. The resulting storm prompted the stories which formed the basis of her defamation action against Cr Kirkwood.
Cr Smith said the two apologies should not be compared as they were a “completely different set of circumstances” and hers was working its way through the SAT towards a “mediated outcome”.
“I did not willingly talk to reporters and make false accusations that would impact so negatively on someone’s reputation,” she said.
“Those comments were then re-posted across multiple sites attracting more vexatious comments from keyboard warriors that didn’t even know me.
“The re-posts were also left on Cockburn Chat for days; it was like a feeding frenzy, keyboard warriors coming out from nowhere.
“I had never seen an election like it and would not wish this on my worst enemy.”
Cr Smith said the turmoil had placed pressure on council staff and affected the morale, mental health and ability of councillors to work as a team.
“This has been the most stressful period of my life,” said Cr Smith, adding it had forced her to seek medical treatment.
“This is not a joke, these pressures are very, very real.”
Cr Smith wouldn’t comment on her latest legal action against Cr Stone.
Cr Kirkwood told the Herald she’d now made her apology to Cr Smith and was ready to move on “in the interests of working together”.
by STEVE GRANT