SOUTH Gippsland Shire Council monitor Peter Stephenson believes some councillors may not have taken his appointment seriously.
“I believe there are some who think it’s a bit of a joke I’m here, and who think there’s nothing to see here and I’ve been appointed by the Minister because I’m a mate and needed a job,” he said.
“Well, it couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s fair to say the Council has come to a fair bit of attention in the last two or three years, and perhaps longer.
“The Minister has made a judgement. Some of the councillors might think it’s an unfounded one, but there’s a hell of a lot of others who might think there’s something to see here.”
Despite the apparent troubles at Council, Mr Stephenson said he remained “optimistic”.
“Because you have got to be in this space,” he said.
Mr Stephenson arrived in the role after being appointed by Minister for Local Government Marlene Kairouz. The Minister certainly sees nothing funny about what Mr Stephenson has been appointed to do.
“The Local Government Inspectorate is responsible for investigating alleged breaches of local government laws,” Minister Kairouz said.
“We have concerns about the proper functioning of South Gippsland Shire Council and have appointed a Monitor to report back to the Government.”
Mr Stephenson and the Minister worked beside one another during the pair’s time as councillors at Darebin Shire Council. But Mr Stephenson has worked for both sides of politics in his role assessing the performance of councils – first being appointed in an investigative role during what he termed “the Wangaratta thing”.
The 2013 Wangaratta City Council’s sacking came at the behest of the former Napthine government because of rampant bullying, intimidating behaviour towards staff and councillors and waste of ratepayers’ funds.
It followed a four-month appointment by Mr Stephenson as Inspector of Municipal Administration.
“Since the Wangarrata thing I’ve done little jobs – which I can’t talk about because they’re always confidential – where there’s been an issue. I’ll do my bit then leave,” he said.
“It’s no secret that the Minister and I have a long working relationship, as we were on Darebin Council together. These positions, they’re not advertised. Again, it’s can someone do the job? Can the Minister trust them?
“The Liberal government appointed me in 2013, and this time it’s the Labor government. That’s how I ended up here. I’m known for strong integrity, understanding of how good councils should work and I’m strong enough not to fall over in the middle of it.”
Mr Stephenson said his role at South Gippsland Shire Council was “to be present and observe, and report regularly to the Minister and liaise with the department”.
“I’m required to report anything that one would think might have crossed the line. To that end, the Act (Local Government Act 1989) gives powers to receive or review any document,” he said. “I can look into things, but should something amount to a formal investigation, that’s something the Inspectorate would do.
“It’s a bit of watch and listen. It’s about providing advice. If there was something that was clearly out of kilter, like at Wangaratta, then you report on that and let others make the decision.”
Responding to suggestions that South Gippsland Shire Council’s councillors seem better behaved since his arrival, he said, “It’s important that the public face is good.”
“That’s not to say that in any organization the public face is actually what’s going to underneath. I’d be gladdened if the behaviour of Council has improved since I arrived, but that’s only the public face and it would be important that that translates through to outcomes,” he said.
“It starts with the public face. If a council is demonstrating a public face that’s one of discord, then that has a whole lot of ramifications.
“It has implications for staff, it has implications for the council itself, it has implications in terms of how government looks at it.”
And the fate of South Gippsland Shire Council? “I like to think that my primary role is to try and provide advice so that the Council is on an even keel. That’s the way I approached Wangaratta and that’s the way I’m approaching this,” he said.