The Mirror News

Councillor misconduct

SOUTH Gippsland Shire Councillor Don Hill is facing disciplinary action after a finding of misconduct against him by an independent Councillor Conduct Panel.

The Panel reprimanded Cr Hill, made a finding that remedial action is required and directed Council to review its Councillor Code of Conduct.

In addition, the Panel directed Cr Hill to attend training for a period of six months “directed towards his understanding of Council procedures and practice, improving his communication skills with Councillors and Council Officers and monitoring him in his role as a Councillor with an appropriate mentor”.

It is yet to be determined how this training will be implemented. Shire CEO Tim Tamlin was still digesting the import of the Panel’s determinations, handed down last Wednesday, when The Mirror spoke to him on Thursday. He said it would be up to Council to implement the Panel’s report, though he will provide guidance.

The matter will come before Council at the next meeting, scheduled for 2pm next Wednesday, April 27.

The mayor, Cr Bob Newton, said he did not wish to comment before the meeting, except to note that it is the first time in his nearly 24 years in local government that a local councillor has appeared before a Councillor Conduct Panel.

This is a serious matter. It is also a costly one for the ratepayers of South Gippsland. The Councillor Conduct Panel has incurred unplanned and unbudgeted expenditure and use of council resources. The full costs of the Panel have not yet been received. However, they are conservatively estimated at $23,000, with an anticipated further $5,000 to $8,000 expenditure expected. It will be up to ratepayers to foot the bill.

The Panel was initiated on August 6 last year following complaints about Cr Hill from fellow councillors, including James Fawcett, Mohya Davies and Lorraine Brunt. Raising a total of three complaints, they suggested that some of his comments may have breached clauses of the Councillor Code of Conduct.

The comments in question were made by Cr Hill in relation to the Rating Differential Strategy on June 3, 2015, and the Minority Reports on the 2014-2018 Rating Strategy (‘Complaint 3’). The councillors also took issue with the way he expressed his view of the re-build of Council’s offices in letters to the local press in June 2015 (Complaint 1) and his behaviour at the council meeting of March 25, 2015 (‘Complaint 2). They suggested he had made derogatory comments about the council and the councillors.

The Mirror reported that particular meeting under the headline “Disorder rules the day at Council,” going on to say “Civility flew out the window and the tone of discourse degenerated to a new low” (Mirror, 1/4/2015). The Panel found that Cr Hill had breached the Code, noting: “…Cr Hill felt frustrated in not being able to fully expound his views at Council, but this did not provide an excuse for his comments”.

The Panel also concluded in relation to Complaint 3 that Cr Hills’ conduct had breached clauses of the Code. “While Cr Hills’ motivation for his comments may have been to critically analyse the Report and provide another view, his words went too far,” determined the Panel. It added: “Any pressure or aggression Cr Hill may have felt for Cr Fawcett does not justify inappropriate language.”

Likewise, in relation to Complaint 1, the Panel’s conclusion was that Cr Hill’s conduct had breached clauses of the Code of Conduct. However, the Panel noted that this had been ameliorated by the apology he effectively made in a further letter to the press.

As required by the Local Government Act, a copy of the Panel’s report has been provided to the parties involved in the Panel, to Council and to the Minister for Local Government.

The finding of misconduct against Cr Hill comes the same week commissioners have moved to dismiss the entire Geelong Council, amidst allegations of bullying, conflict and dysfunction. There is reportedly nothing to stop any of those councillors re-standing for office when elections are held at the end of next year after a period under administrators. Presumably Cr Hill is also free to re-stand for election later this year if he should wish to do so.

Cr Hill has stated that he plans to appeal the panel decision.

“I have been advised that there are legal grounds for appealing, including the fact that the panel considered matters that were no longer the subject of a complaint. I will make a fuller statement after the appeal has been heard,” he said.

“In the meantime, I intend to continue to represent the ratepayers in my ward to the best of my ability and to hold Council accountable for its decisions.”

Cr Fawcett said that the panel hearing had been required because Cr Hill had declined to participate in other defined processes, including mediation, that may have seen the matters resolved.

He said: “The independent panel has considered the evidence and found that Cr Hill has breached several clauses of our Councillor Code of Conduct. The most notable breaches were clause 2.2(b) requiring a councillor to “Act honestly and avoid statements (whether oral or in writing) or actions that will or are likely to mislead or deceive a person” and clause 3.2(a) “Being honest in all dealings with the community, with other Councillors and with Council staff”.

“There are other clauses that have been breached, and in particular one that relates to dealing with council staff,” said Cr Fawcett. “I would refer concerned residents to the panel report excerpts contained in our agenda for the council meeting of 27 April 2016 for a full explanation of the findings and outcomes.”

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