The first round of submissions on reforming the Local Government Act has now closed. There were several from Glen Eira residents. Of major significance is the submission from the Ombudsman. Every one of the selected extracts below has direct relevance to what occurs in Glen Eira. Some of these recommendations also fly in the face of what Council submitted. It is now up to the new CEO to change the culture and ensure that Glen Eira is dragged screaming into a new era of greater transparency and accountability to its ratepayers.

Here are some extracts. All submissions may be accessed from – http://www.yourcouncilyourcommunity.vic.gov.au/submission?preview=true

Secrecy in government creates conditions in which improper conduct and poor administration can flourish. It also fuels suspicions of wrongdoing and erodes community trust. Members of the public who complain to my office about council decisions occasionally mention the fact that decisions were made ‘behind closed doors’ or ‘in secret’ as evidence to support their concerns.

While the Local Government Act requires councils to record the reasons for closing a meeting in the minutes, recent experience of my office is that councils on occasion simply repeat the wording of the Act without providing specific reasons as required by the Act.

I also note that Victoria’s Act does not provide for separate confidentiality orders for documents. While a meeting may be closed to the public for valid reasons, the documents considered at that meeting may not contain the same level of confidential information. I favour strengthening these provisions in the Local Government Act to promote transparency, encourage councils to minimise the use of closed meetings, and to provide more information to the community about the reasons for closed meetings.

In its current form, the Act only deals with complaint handling in the context of complaints about the Chief Executive Officer of a council. This is not sufficient. The main subject matter of complaints about councils to my office continues to be the manner in which councils handle complaints. Of the roughly 3,400 complaints received by my office last financial year, almost 1,000 complaints raised issues about the way the council had handled the complaint. Key problems included delays, inadequate processes and inadequate remedies.

I recommended that the government consider whether there should be restrictions on donations to candidates and political parties by property developers; and whether the details of all donations should be published on a publically available register within 30 days of the relevant election.

Earlier investigations by my predecessor identified issues that affect good governance when prior political affiliations – both within and across political parties – lead to ‘block voting’ by councillors. Previous investigations by my office have noted that this hampers the proper functioning of a council as a decision-making body, with councillors engaging in decision making which in effect:

takes place behind closed doors

 causes detriment to the council

sees votes made for personal gain or political motivations

sees voting in a ‘block’ to support a faction when those decisions may not be necessarily in the best interests of the community

lacks impartiality when councillors meet in a ‘block’ prior to council meetings to determine their votes without considering the merits of a matter while in council chambers

….allegations of conflict of interest continue to be made about councillors and council officers. My office received over 40 complaints about conflict of interest in the last financial year. Eleven of those complaints were considered serious enough to be notified to IBAC by my office.

I also support the creation of a uniform code of conduct for all councils. While the Local Government Act requires councils to establish a Councillor Code of Conduct, there is no requirement for a uniform code across the state. Having a prescribed code of conduct would provide consistency in the application of key principles of behaviour.

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COMMENT

A few recent examples from the last council meeting alone:

  • An in camera item about ‘personnel’ and the Audit Committee. No outcome for this item was reported in the minutes. Hence for the nth time we have to ask: why is this in camera? Council ‘tradition’ has largely been to reappoint either Gibbs or McLean in secret. Is this another instance of this practise? One of these members is now gone? Is the other one going as well? Why, when other councils can table their intentions about appointments to the Audit Committe, does Glen Eira continue to operate in total secrecy?
  • Why is there no ‘estimated value’ provided for another tender in the in camera items and no announcement of any result? Jobs for the boys perhaps?
  • Voting in blocks? Another ‘tradition’ in Glen Eira!
  • Resolving ‘complaints’ – councillor responses are always ‘I have been advised’ with no further evidence to support the decision.
  • Conflict of interest? Perceptions of this abound in Glen Eira – Esakoff Seaview property; Frogmore and Jewish Care; How to vote card fiasco; countless Melbourne Racing Club applications; councillors voting on petitions when they are named in order to reject a petition (ie on appointment of Councillor Trustees) and the very ‘convenient’ declaration of conflict of interest by Esakoff on Frogmore!
  • A Code of Conduct that includes ‘no surprises’ so that councillors are gagged.
  • No penalties included in the Code of Conduct since it is, according to council, only a ‘code’ and therefore not ‘enforceable’.

The litany of poor governance practices is shocking. Residents need to make sure that there is dramatic change in October 2016.

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