A PROCLAIMED new chapter within Warrnambool district’s Aboriginal community has been thrown into disarray by a Supreme Court ruling declaring the controversial Framlingham Aboriginal Trust elections invalid.
Justice Ross Robson yesterday ordered fresh elections and criticised the Office of Aboriginal Affairs Victoria (OAAV) for providing incorrect advice.
All seven committee positions on the trust board will be opened up for fresh nominations and former chief executive Geoff Clark has not ruled out another tilt at leadership. New elections are likely to be held within the next two months.
Justice Robson ruled that Mr Clark’s sons, Aaron and Jeremy, were unfairly refused entry and voting rights to the December meeting.
The brothers, along with third plaintiff, former committee member Tim Chatfield, are likely to be awarded legal costs, which are estimated to be several hundred thousand dollars, for the June hearing in Melbourne and associated expenses.
They launched the court challenge against the trust and its new chairman Geoffrey (Possum) Clark-Ugle following the annual general meeting in December and earlier exclusion of the Clark family from leadership and voting rights.
After that meeting trust secretary Kyeema Lovett declared that the new board comprised mainly young Framlingham residents looking to a brighter future and that it was the first “proper AGM” for shareholders in 25 years.
However, Justice Robson found the conduct of the defendants in excluding Aaron and Jeremy Clark from nominating, attending or voting at the annual meeting was “oppressive”.
“I am satisfied that the oppression results from overbearing acts and attitudes on the part of the defendants,” he said.
“Having regard to the defendants’ conduct as a whole in all the circumstances surrounding administration of the trust I consider that their conduct has been burdensome, harsh and wrongful to Aaron and Jeremy Clark.”
The judge criticised moves by Mr Clark-Ugle and others to re-organise tenures of committee members and elections.
“The election regime of the trust is imprecise, problematic and unwieldy,” he said.
“In my opinion it is probable that members of the committee were aware that they were keeping themselves on the committee longer than they were allowed to be on it and they probably did so to advance their own interests.”
The court ruling follows years of unrest within the trust and the ousting of Geoff Clark, Mr Clark-Ugle’s cousin, after he was declared bankrupt in 2009.
His wife, Aaron and two others on the committee of management were ousted in 2011 and Mr Clark-Ugle elected chairman of a new committee.
Geoff Clark later described the moves as a coup.
Aaron and Jeremy acquired some of their father’s shares in the trust.
Evidence presented during the court case revealed a tense lead-up to the December 16 meeting where a security guard was posted outside the venue.
A group from the Framlingham community and former trust members assembled outside hoping to attend the meeting, but the guard was instructed to allow only those named on a prescribed list.
The court was told Mr Clark-Ugle confronted Geoff and Aaron Clark and others and told them Aaron and Jeremy were not entitled to enter because their shares were being disputed by the bankruptcy trustee.
Judge Robson said the defendants initially agreed to recognised the shareholdings, then reneged.
He criticised the department’s oversight of the issue.
“In my opinion the advice of the OAAV was not in accordance with the Act,” he said.
“The trust has failed to get it right, it has had to seek legal advice and ask the OAAV for help. In my opinion the OAAV also got it wrong.”
He said the state government may wish to consider loopholes in the Act exposed by this case.