Stonnington councillors boycott meetings to axe $1.8m marketing scheme

A group of Stonnington city councillors is boycotting special meetings to prevent the abolition of a controversial $1.8 million marketing scheme that may have been misused by local trader associations.

The council in Melbourne’s east requires local businesses to pay a levy to the long-running scheme, which is designed to provide them with marketing and promotions support via their trader associations.

Traders on Chapel Street in South Yarra are required to pay a levy for the marketing and promotions scheme.

The scheme funnels $1.8 million each year to groups representing traders on Chapel Street, in Toorak Village, and on Toorak Road in South Yarra, Glenferrie Road in Hawthorn, and High Street in Malvern.

Audit reports from accounting firms Deloitte and Grant Thornton this year questioned the integrity of the scheme. But some business associations have contacted the council pointing out inaccuracies in the reports.

According to the Grant Thornton report, Chrissie Maus, general manager of the Chapel Street Precinct Association, spent some funds on personal expenses. “A number of these transactions relate to ‘Uber Eats’ and ‘Uber Trips’,” the report said.

The association authorised $53,000 to be spent at a Print Express, owned by its president Justin O’Donnell. He was paid $52,000 for his role, although other association presidents did not receive a payment.

“I don’t have any say in whom the association uses for printing,” O’Donnell said.

He said he hired a manager to look after his printing business so he could concentrate on the association and the honorarium payment predated his tenure.

“Chrissy never used her card for personal purposes,” O’Donnell said. “There were occasions when the payment erroneously defaulted to the wrong card. On those occasions, she immediately notified us and repaid the funds.”

The Chapel Street association paid out $40,000 to production company WTFN for the use of Bondi Vet Dr Kate Adams to promote the retail strip as dog-friendly, and paid $70,000 to celebrity gardener Jamie Durie for promotional videos, including one on sustainable shopping.

The shopping precinct on Glenferrie Road in Malvern.Credit:Wayne Taylor

The Glenferrie Road Malvern Business Association spent $75,000 on the Malvern Keeper gift card scheme, where local businesses were given $100 vouchers to spend in other local shops.

But Deloitte said the scheme was “not optimally delivering” on its purpose. A spokeswoman for the association declined to comment.

The reports were discussed in a confidential council meeting on September 26, and Stonnington mayor Jami Klisaris and councillors Polly Morgan, Melina Sehr and Matthew Koce voted to axe the scheme ahead of replacing it.

But the decision cannot be finalised, because councillors Marcia Griffin, Alex Lew, Kate Hely and Nicki Batagol have boycotted four special meetings on the issue. They want the existing scheme modified.

The special meetings have had to be abandoned as a quorum cannot be reached due to the absence of the four councillors.

Councillor Mike Scott has excused himself due to a conflict of interest. Regular council meetings have not been affected. Last Monday the councillors turned up for a 6pm briefing but left ahead of the 7pm special meeting.

Local government minister Melissa Horne met with Stonnington council this week and will hold further meetings over the boycotts, as they could be in breach of the Local Government Act which requires councils to carry out their duties.

“We have been made aware of behaviour issues involving councillors at City of Stonnington and are currently working with council leadership to establish if further action needs to be taken,” a government spokesman said.

The turmoil comes ahead of next month’s mayoral elections, and as Stonnington chief executive Jacqui Weatherill has resigned to become chief executive of Greater Dandenong Council.

Councillor Griffin criticised the high cost of the reports and the lack of transparency in the process.

“We do not believe in ending something without a sustainable alternative, without giving the traders association time to respond and without total transparency,” Griffin said.

Klisaris said she was “disappointed that four elected councillors appear to be seeking to frustrate this process and avoid this responsibility”.

“It is a strong matter of principle for me, and should be a concern for any councillor seeking to uphold the highest levels of governance and accountability in line with community expectations,” she said.

Another special council meeting is scheduled for Monday, but Lew is on holidays and Griffin has a commitment to attend an annual general meeting.

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