A former mayor of Auburn council has denied he spoke against a planning proposal to reduce the proposed new maximum height of a building because its owner, a local Lebanese group, supported his political rival.
Developer-politican Ronney Oueik, appearing before a public inquiry into the planning decisions of one of Sydney’s most high-profile councils, denied he had shown favouritism in several planning decisions.
“We tried to do the right thing for the community and now we’re getting punished,” he said, of questions raised during the ongoing inquiry under Sydney silk Richard Beasley.
Attention focused particularly on an unexpected change to a rezoning proposal passed by council that had the effect of lowering the proposed new maximum height of a building owned by the Bhanin El Minieh Association from 21 to 16 storeys.
The same change preserved a greater height for a property owned by the sister of fellow former Auburn councillor, Salim Mehajer.
Mr Oueik denied a suggestion from council assisting the inquiry, Paul Bolster, that he had said of the proposals: “They are greedy. R4 [16 storeys] is all they deserve. Serves them right”.
He denied his support for the proposal was in any way motivated by the fact that Bhanin El Minieh had endorsed his rival for the state seat of Auburn in the 2015 NSW election, the opposition leader, Luke Foley.
Mr Oueik said: “That’s not my language”. He said he could not recall if he had said words to the effect of “Bhanins were greedy” and said he believed many in the organisation had in fact voted for him.
Mr Oueik confirmed that he had exchanged Christmas gifts with council staff but said earlier reports that he paid for the cupboards for a senior member of council planning staff, Glenn Francis, was borne of a misunderstanding between the men.
“Mr Francis doesn’t understand the way it works in building,” Mr Oueik said. “When the cupboard was delivered, he wanted to pay the money to the delivery guy. The delivery guy wouldn’t take the money.”
Mr Oueik also denied that he and other councillors were wrong in choosing to vote to allow the continuation of a plan to sell a council carpark to Salim Mehajer. A council lawyer had advised the sale.
Mr Oueik said selling the carpark to Mr Mehajer would have realised community demands for a new supermarket – which was to be built below his mixed residential development.
“Politics is a very hard game,” Mr Oueik said. “We go through headaches, we face elections. I had a lot of calls from residents.”
Mr Oueik also denied that he had said, of the council’s former general manager, John Burgess: “Tell that c—t I’m going to get him”.
Mr Oueik denied he had said that in response to Mr Burgess, after he reported the council’s former deputy mayor and Mr Oueik’s ally, Jack Au, to the Independent Commission Against Corruption.
Mr Burgess was subsequently sacked by the council, notwithstanding a petition signed by 158 staff.
Mr Oueik also denied approaching Mr Burgess asking him to consider a tender by his contact “Sam The Paving Man”, noting that the price quoted in his tender for a council concreting contract could be dropped substantially from that listed.
Mr Oueik was the Liberal party’s candidate for the seat of Auburn. He ran against the Labor leader, Mr Foley.
It emerged last week that he will sue Mr Foley for defamation over comments made to the media.
Mr Mehajer will appear before the inquiry on Friday.