FORMER South Gippsland Shire Council inquiry commissioner Julie Eisenbise has been appointed as the council’s interim administrator, with Monday June 24, 2019 the first day in her new job of serving as the council for the next three months.
After then, a panel of three administrators will run the council until elections are held on Saturday October 30, 2019.
South Gippsland Shire Council was dismissed on Wednesday June 19, 2019 after the Victorian Parliament adopted the recommendation of the Commission of Inquiry’s report presented to Local Government Minister Adem Somyurek on Thursday June 13.
Mr Somyurek said the “administrators will be in place for at least two years to restore the level of good governance rightfully expected by the South Gippsland community.”
Ms Eisenbise was sworn in as the interim administrator on Tuesday afternoon after an understandably intense briefing session with council staff since Monday.
Among Ms Eisenbise’s first official duties will be holding the council’s scheduled ordinary meeting in the council chamber at Leongatha today, Wednesday June 26, 2019, starting at 2 pm, in the place of elected councillors and mayor.
On the agenda will be the possible adoption of the 2019/20 annual budget, the revised 2017/21 council plan and the 2019/22 rating strategy.
Ms Eisenbise served alongside Commission of Inquiry chair and former Supreme Court judge the Hon Frank Vincent AO QC and fellow commissioner and senior local and state government public servant John Watson to look into the council’s activities.
She is aformer Manningham City Council mayor and councillor and until recently was a member of the Victoria Grants Commission that allocates Federal Government financial assistance grants to Victorian local councils.
The South Gippsland Shire Council Commission of Inquiry was established by Mr Somyurek on Thursday May 9, 2019, with the inquiry itself beginning on Tuesday May 21, so Ms Eisenbise has already had a fairly solid introduction to the shire.
Parliament dismisses Council in one day
Both houses of the Victorian Parliament passed a bill to dismiss the South Gippsland Shire Council last Wednesday, the same day it was introduced, with royal assent turning the bill into an Act or law the day after assent is received.
Councillors have been initially replaced by Ms Eisenbise as interim administrator, with a three-member administration panel to be appointed to run the council for the next two years until October 2021.
What swiftly became the Local Government (South Gippsland Shire Council) Act 2019was first introduced by Kororoit MLA and former Local Government Minister Marlene Kairouz as a bill into the Legislative Assembly on Wednesday morning.
After “A Bill for an Act to dismiss the South Gippsland Shire Council and provide for a general election for that Council and for other purposes” was passed without amendment by the Assembly it was sent to the Legislative Council with the request that it be considered as an urgent bill.
The Legislative Council also agreed to the bill without any change after its introduction by South Eastern MLC and current Local Government Minister Adem Somyurek, with royal assent subsequently given by Governor of Victoria Linda Dessau as the Queen’s representative.
The passing of the bill followed the tabling of the Municipal Monitor Report for South Gippsland Council and the Report of the Commission of Inquiry into South Gippsland Shire Council in both the Assembly and the Council on the same day.
In the Assembly Ms Kairouz said, “the bill seeks to address the serious governance failures highlighted in the report of the Commission of Inquiry into the South Gippsland Council released in June 2019.
“The report raises clear evidence of deep-seated, pervasive and continuing governance failures at the council.”
Mr Somyurek said, “we have accepted the recommendation of the Commission of Inquiry to dismiss the Council until October 2021.
“The dismissal … will ensure that residents, ratepayers and business of South Gippsland get a council that functions in their best interests,” he said.
“This is not a decision we took lightly; the Commission of Inquiry highlighted serious failures at South Gippsland Shire Council which required dismissal,” Mr Somyurek said.
“We will now work towards rebuilding the council to ensure it can provide first class services and [the] representation the local community deserves.”
The Inquiry’s report found a high level of discord, conflict and tension between the councillors had negatively impacted on the council’s performance, the councillors’ decision-making, councillor – staff relationships, and the council’s reputation.
The report indicated that such an atmosphere had reduced the respect for and the standing of the council in the community, and that the resignations of six councillors had weakened the council’s legitimacy.
O’Brien relieved decision made
Gippsland South MLA Danny O’Brien said, “after a very long process I am relieved for the people of South Gippsland that the decision has finally been made.
“The dismissal of a council is a very serious step and I have not supported it lightly. It is only considered where there have been serious cases of governance failure,” he said.
“I note that both the Municipal Monitor and the Commission of Inquiry, headed by respected former Supreme Court judge Frank Vincent, were unequivocal in their findings that conflict among councillors has had a negative impact on the council’s performance.
“There can now be no doubt that these problems were real and needed to be addressed. Any suggestion that everything was fine among the councillors is delusional and has now been comprehensively disproved,” Mr O’Brien continued.
“I said in March that if the allegations about council behaviour were proven by the monitor then the council should be dismissed, and that is why I was happy to support the Bill to do so today.
“While I am always uncomfortable with the dismissal of an elected body, the reality is that the current composition of the council is very far removed from what ratepayers voted for in 2016,” he said.
“There is now a clean slate and it’s time to look ahead. South Gippsland has a great future and in two years we will need good people to put their hand up and lead our council. I hope many will stand for election.”
In Parliament Mr O’Brien said he wanted to, “send a message out now to the good people of South Gippsland to start considering who they would like their councillors to be in 2021.
“We have a wonderful region … and I think it will do well,” he said.
“We need to get over this little hump, but I think it has a good future and it needs good people to run it from 2021. I look forward to being part of that future and working with the new council when it is elected.”
Minister Somyurek’s office and Commission chair Mr Vincent advised and briefed parliamentarians on the South Gippsland Shire Council issue on Monday June 17, 2019 before the bill to dismiss the council was introduced on Wednesday.
The Municipal Monitor, Peter Stephenson, was first appointed by the Local Government Minister on June 18, 2018 to observe the South Gippsland Shire Council, with his report provided to the Minister on March 21, 2019.
Mr Somyurek issued the Monitor’s report to the council on April 2, 2019, along with a show-cause notice, asking the council to respond, which it did on May 9, 2019, lodging a 130-page submission.
The Monitor’s report is now available to the public following its tabling in Parliament.
The Commission of Inquiry into the South Gippsland Shire Council, with Mr Vincent as chair, supported by commissioners Ms Eisenbise and John Watson, was appointed by Mr Somyurek on May 21, 2019.
The Commission interviewed a range of people, including Monitor Mr Stephenson, the Chief Municipal Inspector David Wolf, current and former councillors and council staff, and members of the community.
The Commission also held a public hearing at Korumburra on June 5, 2019, with written submissions from the community and other interested groups due on the same day.
The commissioners’ 30-page report plus explanatory attachments was presented to the Minister on Thursday June 13, 2019.
Links to both the Monitor’s report and to the Commission of Inquiry’s report are listed below.
Former Mayor’s statement
Former mayor and councillor Don Hill supplied the following statement following the dismissal of the council by Mr Somyurek.
The statement reads, “Councillors of the South Gippsland Shire are extremely disappointed in the decision of the Minister for Local Government to dismiss this Council.
“We are deeply concerned with the loss of local democracy and that our ability to represent our community has been terminated. The decision to appoint Administrators until 2021 weakens democracy and democratic representation.
“We strongly contest the assertions of the Commission of Inquiry that there has been a failure of governance and leadership. Council has, and continues to, deliver the 4-year Council Plan and remains in a strong financial position; these critical documents developed by Councillors inform the current and future strategic direction for South Gippsland.
“We encourage all community members to read the Councillors’ response to the Municipal Monitor’s Report which was presented to the Minister for Local Government; this will enable members of the community to form their own informed view.
“Individually, we look forward to working within the community as citizens and encourage the community to continue to engage with Council to achieve community aims,” the statement said.
“We hope that part of our legacy has been to set in place a more responsive and collaborative Council that aims to work in partnership with the community it serves.”