Former mayor Chris Loft
Former mayor Chris Loft

Ex-mayor’s right-hand man takes stand

EVERY Saturday, in an office in Maryborough, a plan for the future of the Fraser Coast was being hatched behind closed doors.

Here, the man who hoped to be the mayor's chief of staff, was already allegedly privately calling the shots and planned to make it official.

Saturday meetings to discuss council issues complete with an agenda and discussion points including job applications was a weekly affair for Chris Loft and Brian Downie.

This is what the trial of former Fraser Coast Mayor Chris Loft heard yesterday as Mr Downie took to the witness box.

Mr Loft has pleaded not guilty to one count of misconduct in public office between April 3, 2016 and February 28, 2017.

The Hervey Bay District Court heard that Mr Downie and Mr Loft's friendship began after he interviewed for a job (general manager) with Fraser Coast Opportunities where Mr Loft was on the hiring panel. Mr Downie was not successful.

However, the men became acquaintances and when Mr Loft ran for Mayor, Mr Downie was right by his side, running his campaign pro bono.

The pair had "ongoing discussions" regarding implementing a mayoral executive officer position that they felt "Fraser Coast needed to bring economic development to the regional area".

Crown prosecutor, Sam Bain produced an email dated a few days before Mr Loft took declaration as mayor where he had told Mr Downie "we can create whatever titles we want once we get in".

The court heard once Mr Loft was elected as mayor, Mr Downie "became his private secretary." He was paid to check Mr Loft's emails and go through documents - keeping important ones. This was not a council elected position, but a private arrangement between the friends.

Mr Downie told the court he had regular Saturday morning meetings with Mr Loft and his son Jason to discuss council issues as well as "catch-up, catch up and see how Mr Loft was feeling as he was under a lot of pressure."

It was at one of these meetings that a position for a mayoral secretary or executive was discussed. Mr Downie said he had written a draft job application, but they had not settled on a title for the position yet.

"I compiled the lion's share of the position objective. I wrote the draft including the selection criteria," said Mr Downie.

The job application outlined the selection criteria for the desirable candidate which included a track record in strategy planning, operational management in private sector as well as experience working with start-up businesses and authoring government grant submissions.

Mr Downie had experience in all these fields.

The position also offered a healthy salary of $180 000 per year with a company vehicle.

"Mr Loft needed someone with a wide range of business experience, not just clerical help," Mr Downie said.

By August the title of the position was upgraded to Chief of Staff and tabled on the Saturday meeting agenda.

The job application was sent to CEO, Lisa Desmond and by early September, it was advertised online.

The court heard Mr Downie emailed Mr Loft and cc'd his son asking the mayor to "put his foot down and amend the advert" as Ms Desmond had changed the description.

"It had been changed from a high-level position to a clerical job. It was not what Mr Loft needed," Mr Downie said.

Mr Downie applied for the job but was "unsuccessful" with his application.

Several applicants were short-listed, and Mr Downie said the mayor asked him to check the candidates CVs to see if they met the requirements and criteria for the position.

"None of the applicants were suitable for what Mr Loft needed. It would've been lovely if I got the job and great for the Fraser Coast region, but Ms Desmond would never hire me for the position," Mr Downie said.

However, all the alleged planning was in vain. The following month Mr Loft learned Council would not be appointing anybody for the position and the recruitment process was terminated.