VICTORIAN Minister for Local Government Adem Somyurek has encouraged the people of South Gippsland to speak to the Commission of Inquiry announced on Thursday May 9, 2019 into the culture and activities of the South Gippsland Shire Council.
The Commission will be conducted under section 209 of the Local Government Act 1989, with broad ranging powers including summoning witnesses, requiring the production of documents, and full access to the council and its documents.
While suspending the council is still under consideration, the Commission will also look at whether consequences beyond suspension, such as dismissal, are warranted to restore good governance at the Council.
While speaking on ABC Gippsland Radio on Friday morning May 10, the Minister asked, “the people of South Gippsland to bear with us.
“If there are any particular issues that the Commission needs to know about, I would strongly encourage you to come forward and speak to the Commission of Inquiry,” he said.
“I understand that the people of South Gippsland have had a hard time with this council.”
Minister Somyurek said that, “in appointing the Commission of Inquiry I give the people of South Gippsland, including current and former councillors and council staff, an opportunity to be heard.
“I believe the community deserves answers as to what is going on in South Gippsland.”
Details on the Commission’s hearings and their location are matters that are to be determined by the Commission of Inquiry and more information will become available once it starts.
Under section 214(3) of the Local Government Act 1989, the Commission may order that all the costs of the inquiry are to be paid by the Council.
The Commission will look at the stability of the council, the behaviours of individual councillors, the process of hiring a CEO and the efficiency and effectiveness of governance arrangements in delivering services to the community.
The Council has, somewhat controversially, rejected the application of currently serving and long-term CEO Tim Tamlin, whose contract expires on June 24, 2019, for the 12-month job of acting CEO, due to begin on June 25, 2019.
Shire Director of Development Service, Brian Sword, was appointed to the temporary position at last Wednesday May 8’s Special (Emergency) Meeting of the council.
The Commission of Inquiry comes after Municipal Monitor Peter Stephenson tabled his final report in March 2019 after a nine-month observation period, recommending that the council be suspended, and an administrator appointed.
The Monitor noted that the council was performing poorly in its direction and leadership, culture and behaviour, and in decision-making, and that it had lost the respect and confidence of a large proportion of the community it purported to serve.
The delivery of the final report also marked the end of Mr Stephenson’s appointment as Municipal Monitor.
Since October 2018, five of nine councillors have resigned from the council, first elected October 2016, with four claiming a range of concerns including workplace and personal bullying, questionable decision-making, poor governance, legal threats and ignored conflicts of interest.
The fifth councillor chose to leave his elected office, effective from Thursday May 9, after Victoria Police laid drug and firearm charges against him following a raid at his family’s Walkerville property in late April 2019.
Four of the councillor positions or extraordinary vacancies were refilled on countbacks of unsuccessful candidates from the 2016 local government elections, with a fifth countback to be held on Monday May 27 to refill the fifth resigning councillor’s place.
On April 2 2019, the Minister provided the council with the Monitor’s report, along with a show-cause notice, asking it to respond within 28 days plus a subsequent seven-day extension, which it did by the new deadline of Thursday May 9, lodging a 130-page submission.
The council was asked what steps it had taken to address the issues in the Monitor’s report.
The Council’s response and the final report from the Municipal Monitor will be carefully considered by the Minister and the Commission of Inquiry to determine the future of the council.
Both the Monitor’s report and the council’s response are to be made public at the Minister’s discretion, though little indication has been given as to when, other than within weeks.
With the permission of the Parliament, the Municipal Monitor report, responses from the council and councillors and the report from the Commission of Inquiry will be tabled together in Parliament.
“I am very concerned at what is going on at the South Gippsland Shire, the Commission – which has inquisitorial powers – will get to the bottom of it and I will table the findings in the Parliament,” Mr Somyurek said.
“Like the ratepayers and residents of South Gippsland, I want a stable Council that functions effectively, governs well, delivers the services the community needs and represents the area.”
MINISTER “HARDENING POSITION”
Mr Somyurek told ABC listeners that by holding the Commission, the Victorian Government was, “hardening up our position” from the Monitor’s recommendation to suspend the council and appoint an administrator.
“I’m raising the stakes,” he said. “I am of the view that things have gone from bad to worse after the Monitor handed down his report.
“Things have deteriorated on the council since then and I have lost confidence in the capacity of the council to deliver good governance to the people of South Gippsland.
“While suspension [of a council] is within a Minister’s power, I am looking at something more punitive, that is potentially sacking the council.
“The Commission will determine as to whether my hunch is right, if the council has got to the point that it deserves to be sacked,” Mr Somyurek said.
“Fifty-five per cent of the councillors there now were not the first choice of the community, and so the community may question the mandate the council now has.”
INQUIRY TO TAKE WEEKS, NOT MONTHS
“I expect the Commission of Inquiry to take weeks not months and the inquiry to be wrapped up pretty quickly,” he said.
“The Monitor’s role was simply to monitor the activities of the council, whereas a Commission of Inquiry is serious business, it’s a quasi-judicial body with inquisitorial and coercive powers, it can carry hearings and subpoena witnesses and documents.
“We will get to the bottom of what is going on.”
Mr Somyurek said the Commission, “can look into past practices, look into bullying” and that, “basically it can look into most things.
“I’m not going to say to the Commission that I want you to find evidence to sack the council, but if they find evidence that the council should be sacked, they will be sacked,” he said.
“I know what the community is saying, and I know about the town hall meeting.”
Mr Somyurek was referring to a public meeting organised by the Leongatha Business Association and held in the Leongatha Memorial Hall in mid-March 2019, which was attended by some 400 people who almost unanimously voted to dismiss the council.
INQUIRY CAN’T DRAG ON – O’BRIEN
Gippsland South MLA Danny O’Brien said the Minister for Local Government’s Commission of Inquiry into South Gippsland Shire must be completed quickly for the benefit of all ratepayers of South Gippsland.
“We have already had a near 12-month process with the appointment of a Monitor and this Commission of Inquiry can’t be allowed to drag on for months,” he said.
“The recent decisions taken, then overturned and then taken again with respect to the Acting CEO position were alarming to me from a governance perspective and I raised my concerns with the Minister directly, in the strongest possible terms.
“The people of South Gippsland Shire deserve a resolution to this debacle as quickly as possible and the Minister should not hesitate to act decisively,” Mr O’Brien said.
“If the evidence suggests that the Council should be dismissed, then he will not be opposed by me.
“It is also critical that the outstanding Local Government Inspectorate investigation into the alleged leaking of confidential materials from the Shire, with respect to Bald Hills Wind Farm, must also be wrapped up into any final decision the Minister takes,” he said.
“I hope this entire saga is resolved quickly.”
WE DO NOT BELIEVE WE HAVE FAILED – MAYOR
In his weekly Mayor’s Message published in this edition of The Mirror, South Gippsland Shire Mayor Cr Don Hill said in part that he and his fellow councillors, “continue to perform our role and look forward to having our reputations cleared by the Commission of Inquiry in due course.
“This has been a difficult process for all of the current councillors to endure in the light of the fact that we do not believe we have failed to govern property.”
Cr Hill also said the council, “welcomes the day that the Monitor’s report and our submissions are made public.
“People will then be able to determine for themselves what has and what has not occurred, and perhaps others will question how all this came about,” he said.
Cr Hill said that while it was surprised at the Minister’s timing the council welcomed Mr Somyurek’s announcement of the Commission of Inquiry and its “investigative powers.”
He went on to say that, “Council also believes that the Commission of Inquiry will fail to find any evidence of poor governance or improper processes as have previous investigations.”