Council divided by CEO captain’s call on defamation aid

A ‘CAPTAIN’S CALL’ by the City of Melville’s CEO to help fund an employee’s defamation case against a resident has stoked simmering tensions between a council faction and the city’s administration. 

On Friday August 21, WA’s Supreme Court hosted a mediation hearing between the council’s governance and legal services manager Louis Hitchcock and local Shane Peterson, who has already apologised for making “grossly defamatory” comments about the public servant.

The case has been privately brought by Mr Hitchcock and the city won’t say whether it has provided him with funding. 

“The information that the city can provide is contained in council policy CP-017 Legal Representation Policy Elected Members and Employees,” is all it would cough up. 

That policy allows the CEO to unilaterally authorise legal aid to assist an employee’s defamation action in “exceptional” circumstances – essentially anything that might undermine the council’s standing in the public’s eye.

An anonymous source confirmed to the Herald the CEO used this clause to help Mr Hitchcock’s legal action – to the chagrin of some councillors who flared up when the council went behind closed doors at its July 21 meeting to discuss the matter. 

The unhappy councillors accepted the CEO’s right to withdraw funds, but disputed whether the circumstances counted as “exceptional”.

The Melville Ratepayers and Residents Association (MRRA) agrees with them.

“We see the need for some funding to be made available to city employees for legal cases – but only, as the policy states, in very exceptional circumstances, and if it brings the city itself into disrepute. These are not those circumstances,” says MRRA spokesperson Mark McCleary.

Dr Peterson’s offending remarks came in the context of an extended dispute with a neighbour – a council employee – who had installed an overly-high screen fence which banged in strong winds near his bedroom.

He was incorrectly told by council staff in 2017 the fence would not need a building approval, and it took until July 3 this year before he got a letter from the council acknowledging that was wrong and apologising for the three years of “inconvenience”. The fence was ordered to be removed.

But Dr Peterson’s troubles weren’t over. 

During the dispute Mr Hitchcock was asked to look into the issue. Dr Peterson mistook someone else visiting his neighbour’s house for Mr Hitchcock and sent out an email to the CEO, councillors and the Melville Residents and Ratepayers Association containing the defamatory comments.

On 15 July the city’s lawyers McLeods served him with a concerns notice under Section 14 of the Defamation Act. 

Mr McLeary said the council shouldn’t have dipped into its coffers to help Mr Hitchcock’s case given Dr Peterson had acknowledged he was wrong.

“Shane has made a public apology already,” Mr McLeary said. 

“And even though the city aren’t openly admitting to funding the mediation hearing, at the very least, they’ve engaged their own lawyers to write that initial letter, which wouldn’t have come cheap.”

by LOTTIE ELTON

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