There’s no Moonee Valley Council meeting tonight (the next meeting is on 12 September). So, instead, some thoughts on Council conduct – from me (why not!).
Last week, the Central Goldfields Shire was sacked by the State Government. Councillors elected just last October have been dismissed until fresh elections in 2020.
This dismissal followed a report by the Local Government Investigations and Compliance Inspectorate that found there were many areas where “council had failed the community” and didn’t act on advice received when the failings were identified.
On a quick read of the report, the Council was criticised (and in some cases prosecutions pursued) for failings including:
- Councillor conflict of interest
- Council paying a Cr’s personal legal fees without a decision of Council to do so
- lack of internal controls
- inadequate policies and procedures
- an “overall lack of respect for compliance”
- a trend of non-transparency of decision making (specifically not advertising the sale of public land)
- asset mismanagement (selling assets below current valuations)
- mismanagement of grant funding
- criminal charges being laid against the CEO for the misuse of a Council credit card
- Council employees charging Council for contract work and Council’s human resources not adequately identifying improper conduct or conflicts of interest
- a Council manager approving invoices for their spouse for work carried out at a Council facility
- failure to conduct annual staff performance reviews
- poor management of public information and record keeping and FOI processes
- Councillors not signing the Code of Conduct before the CEO as required under the Local Government Act
What a circus.
The report didn’t appear to recommend the Council’s sacking, but the Minister for Local Government said Administrators were needed to make the necessary changes to Council processes, and would be in place until 2020.
We’ve had a few damning reports into local Councils in the past decade: Brimbank, Port Phillip, and Darebin. Moonee Valley has had several charges laid against former Councillors for not following correct processes when remunerating a former CEO.
It is not always clear how and why some investigations lead to sackings and charges, and some never reach the public eye. The weight of evidence, the willingness for people to go on record, the severity of the crime, and the pervasiveness of misconduct obviously all play a part.
What we do know, though, is that oversight of Councils is critical to the integrity of local government, and that bad behaviour does happen – because power corrupts – or because some people do whatever they can get away with.
So when Councils, Councillors, or officers, do the wrong thing and ignore the laws under which they operate, what are the mechanisms in Victoria for maintaining integrity and accountability?
The Local Government Investigations and Compliance Inspectorate operates under the Local Government Act and accepts complaints related to Council operations and breaches of the Act.
From experience, investigations are slow, and very few cases result in enforcement or prosecution. For example, the penalty for breaches of conflict of interest appears to be a small fine in some cases – despite it appearing to be quite a grave misuse of position (personal opinion and reflecting on no particular case).
The Ombudsman can investigate the actions and decisions of Councils. The Ombudsman can also take referrals from the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission (IBAC). In 2015 and 2016, the Ombudsman’s office looked into a number of matters related to councils and councillors – including political donations and councillors’ use of resources when pre-selected as state election candidates.
IBAC can investigate Council officers and Councillors and has investigated a number of allegations and complaints reported here. Some of the investigations led to referrals to the Inspectorate or the Ombudsman; some led to prosecutions; and some were unsubstantiated.
Each Councillor is also bound by a Code of Conduct – and it is an offence not to sign the Code. The Code comes with a process for managing complaints and disputes – which can ultimately lead to hearings at VCAT and dismissal if the charge amounts to gross misconduct. Codes involve some degree of self-regulation at a Council level and can be warped by the internal infighting that is a common theme in local government.
These mechanisms can work to weed out bad behaviour, but they also have their limitations. Speaking from personal, and also limited, experience, I recall being summonsed to answer a complaint that I had shown great disrespect at a Council meeting because I had coughed when another Councillor rose to speak. The complaint was not upheld. Equally, I tried very hard to have a matter brought to the, then, Conduct Panel, but the matter was ultimately dismissed as the Council did not represent the matter vigorously at the Panel.
Many matters do appear to be successfully dealt with through these various systems of oversight and accountability.
But as we can see from the Central Goldfields example, sometimes the system has to be completely broken before action can be taken to fix it – and then the action involves bringing in the adults for a complete reboot.