COMMISSIONERS looking “into matters relating to the affairs of the South Gippsland Shire Council” met with members of the municipality’s community at a public hearing held at the Korumburra Secondary College on Wednesday evening June 5, 2019.
More than 30 people attended the hearing, held in the school’s performing arts centre, including currently serving Mayor Cr Don Hill and Cr Steve Finlay, former councillors Jim Fawcett and Bob Newton, and a few present shire staff.
The Commission of Inquiry was established by Victorian Local Government Minister Adem Somyurek on Thursday May 9, 2019, while the actual inquiry itself started on Friday May 21, 2019 with private hearings conducted by invitation from the Commissioners to specific individuals.
Written submissions from the public were also called for by the commission, with a deadline of 5 pm on Wednesday June 5, 2019.
The Commission is being led by former Supreme Court judge the Hon Frank Vincent AO QC as chair, with former Manningham City Council mayor and councillor Julie Eisenbise, and former senior local and state government public servant John Watson as his fellow commissioners.
Their written report is to be presented to Mr Somyurek by Thursday June 13, 2019.
At last Wednesday’s public hearing, Mr Vincent said the commission had been appointed by the Minister to “advise in relation to some issues which have arisen” with the present South Gippsland Shire Council.
“We constitute a commission under the Local Government Act  and we report directly to the Minister,” he said.
“I think it is important from the outset to point out what this inquiry is not.
“This commission is not a board of inquiry into individual behaviours of councillors nor is it a body that has the function of resolving or determining issues of conflict which may have arisen between individual members,” Mr Vincent said.
“Our task is a different one; because of its nature, we do not make findings of fact in relation to individuals, we are conscious of our obligation with respect to natural justice.
“It would be singularly inappropriate for us to do that without giving full hearings and going into a whole range of matters.
“We are however concerned with the fact of conflict and the consequences of conflict upon the operations of this area,” Mr Vincent said..
“In the course of our deliberations we have had a considerable amount of written material, we advertised locally requesting any written submissions that people wanted to make to be presented to us.
“We have been in the process during the past several days of interviewing people who requested or [whom] we sought to interview … to equip ourselves with appropriate background knowledge.
“We determined that it was necessary to have a meeting of this kind that would enable … our processes and the nature of our role here to be understood, and to give an opportunity to members of the community affected to express their views as to what should or should not occur given the current environment,” he said.
“I want to point out that you must be careful about attacks or otherwise on individuals or groups and that it would be … inappropriate for this to become a venue for personal comments to be made.
“You will also not be protected for any defamatory statements,” Mr Vincent warned.
“We will have to prepare a report at the conclusion of our meetings with people; we’ve just about finished our interview process, and we are examining the written materials as well.
“We want to hear from you any additional matters you feel ought to be brought to our attention and if we can we will answer any questions you may have,” he said.
“I would like to ask if there are any comments or matters … to come into our consideration and then into our deliberations in preparation for our report.”
Joe Rossi of Korumburra spoke about his dealings with the shire which began in the mid-2010s when he first came to live in the area and later sought to build a supermarket on the site of the former Korumburra saleyards among other proposed developments in the town.
Mr Rossi indicated he had generally received council approval for his various projects including rezoning and permit applications but had experienced delays and other problems with the shire’s executive and administration staff.
Mr Vincent asked Mr Rossi to clarify whether his issues were with the council or with the administration, to which Mr Rossi responded, “the staff is the council”.
Commissioner John Watson defined the two terms, saying, “when we talk about the council tonight, we’re talking about the elected council, and we’ll make the distinction clearly when we are talking about the administration.”
Mr Rossi also commented on the shire’s apparent Leongatha-centric bias in regard to the number and speed of successful development applications.
Clive Hope of Meeniyan raised the subject of the shire’s recent acting chief executive officer appointment process, describing it as, “in my view … unseemingly hasty”.
Citing Mayor Cr Hill’s public statement at the time that, “the Shire needs a different direction going forward”, Mr Hope commented that it would “have been better” to appoint the then incumbent CEO Tim Tamlin to the temporary job, “until that new direction had been identified.”
He also remarked that while livestreamed council meetings were, “a good thing”, individual councillors, “oughtn’t to cherry-pick …small speeches” from the recordings and put them up on their own social media pages, as it was, “not a collegiate attitude” to do so.
Shire resident David Amor told the commissioners that he had been,” heavily involved” with the shire for the past 10 years, and that he knew, “how it works and what the fundamentals are”.
He said that, “the councillors were very stagnant eight or 10 years ago”, and that “a lot has happened during the last six years”, with “some [councillors] come and gone and back and gone again.
“At the last council election [in 2016] we got rid of six of them … now we’ve got five new councillors less than 12 months old, and not the six we voted for.”
Mr Amor, too, commented on the shire’s budget and rating strategy, and on alleged approval delays for applications for places other than Leongatha, which he described as “a vendetta”.
He also told the commissioners that the commission of inquiry’s public hearing had been, “very poorly advertised” and that, “tonight was almost a secret.”
Mr Amor mentioned that he, “didn’t get a chance to talk” at what he described as “the one-sided” public meeting arranged by the Leongatha Business Association in March 2019 and attended by some 400 people that resulted in a majority vote to ask Mr Somyurek to dismiss the council.
Glenn Wright, “a citizen of Leongatha”, said, “it’s not about Leongatha versus Korumburra; what about Meeniyan, what about Mirboo North? In any shire there is always a hub, and I believe Leongatha is the hub, though that’s not what we’re talking about tonight.”
Mr Vincent said,” we’re not interested in the Leongatha Korumburra argument; there are more fundamental questions to look at than the rivalry that extends probably from football teams and netball teams and other things; that’s not what we’re looking at.”
Mr Wright listed, “a number of issues”, including how the behaviour of the council during the past two years had got out into the public via the local Press and the ABC, that the resignation of “at least four councillors” was, “unusual anywhere in Victoria”, and that, “bullying is unacceptable in this day and age”.
He told the commission that he had chaired the Leongatha public meeting in March, which had been called “at short notice”, and which in his view had, “covered the issues” before the vote on the motion to ask the Minister to act was taken.
Mr Wright posed a rhetoric question, “why are so many ratepayers so disillusioned, disgusted with the current council and how it’s been conducted”, and that he had, “not heard one person say that the council has done a good job.
“People from outside the shire who come in would wonder what is going on,” he said. “Let’s clear the deck and start afresh.”
Gus Blaauw of Venus Bay agreed with Mr Amor that the Leongatha meeting had been “one-sided”, and that “the legacy of the previous council” was “unacceptable” and that it had had “a toxic culture”, which had become “embedded and almost impossible to remedy” in the current council.
“This council has one of the highest rates in Victoria and one of the lowest [ratepayer] satisfaction ratings,” he said.
“I’m looking forward to a new council … we need to dismantle this one and build from the ground up.”
Korumburra resident Marie Gerrard-Staton told the commissioners that she was speaking on behalf of the Rates Challengers, “an ordinary group of ratepayers” who were pensioners or on a limited income and had been seeking a waiver of their rates from the council.
Ms Gerrard-Staton said the group had not been allowed to speak at council meetings, though three councillors had attended one of the group’s meetings.
“The shire’s ageing population has ben highlighted in the budget and rating strategy,” she said. “Our meetings have had a good turnout of people like us, without a voice about outrageous rates. “We’re looking for new transparency.”
John McCombe of Leongatha told the commissioners that the council had, “now realised what they can do” after “a new direction [the retention of an existing three per cent rate reduction strategy] was put to the council four months ago.
“The new councillors haven’t got their heads around all of the issues as yet, but there have been some positive steps, with more open meetings and the voting blocks disappearing,” he said.
“I think leave them alone, give them a chance.”
Noelene Cosson of Korumburra spoke of the “high esteem” that the three female resigning councillors had “held in the community … these people were forced out somehow.
“We don’t get to see what happens in the council’s open and closed meetings and we want the inquiry to find out what’s been happening,” she said.
“We need to put the whole issue to rest, it’s not healthy for the community.”
Belinda Nicholls, who said, “l live in one of the towns in the community” commented that, “sometimes councillors are not able to defend themselves” and that “councillors and some groups get a bad rap.”
Mr Vincent said that “we all get a bad rap from time to time!
“There will be quite significant areas of dispute on issues [within a council] and some incompatible personalities,” he said.
Ms Nicholls said that “the councillors haven’t said what the bullying is … it’s a serious concern.”
Shirley Anne Wright of Leongatha said she was, “a concerned citizen of [what was] the Shire of Woorayl” and that the resigned councillors were “representing constituents of the shire.
“I’m concerned about the mental state of people and about councillors coming in after not being voted on,” she said.
“We need [councillors] with good knowledge of the whole shire, not just small areas, and I think this council should be dismissed and we start afresh.”
At the end of the hearing, Mr Vincent said the commissioners were, “gaining a perspective of the community’s views” and that, “the Minister does not dictate to me.”