SOUTH Gippsland Shire Council’s two newest councillors were sworn in last Wednesday (April 10) in Leongatha.
While there was a certain amount of pomp to the ceremony, it lacked the usual sense of optimism that marks such occasions. Local Government Minister Adem Somyurek has given councillors a deadline of May 2 to answer allegations contained within Municipal Monitor Peter Stephenson’s report.
While the report has not been released to the public, it is said to point the finger of blame at councillors for creating an ugly work environment. Council has suffered a crisis of confidence in recent times – with four councillors quitting amidst claims of bullying by colleagues.
Given these circumstances, and the prospect that Council may be suspended by the Minister, the tenure of Tarwin Valley Ward councillor Steve Finlay and Strzelecki Ward councillor Frank Hirst may be short lived.
Despite this Cr Finlay attested to “feeling positive”.
“The Monitor has recommended a suspension, but there’s still a number of steps to go through. The suspension may only be for a short period, before we’re back on track. We don’t know,” he said.
The president of the South Gippsland Action Group said he wanted to “have a look at the big picture” before deciding on what needed to change at Council. Before entering Council, however, his main focus has been a reduction in rates.
His group is also firmly of the opinion that more people in the region will mean more money in the local economy and, ultimately, lower rates.
“We don’t want to see empty shops and we think an answer is population growth,” he said.
Is there a way Council can reduce its rates burden?
“Let’s say I’d like to focus on efficiency and work out where we might improve,” he said.
Will that mean job cuts?
“It will be interesting now that I’ll be in a position where I can find out more information and what the prospects are for change and improvements,” he said.
“I haven’t identified any duplication or waste, but I guess that in any bureaucracy there are opportunities for efficiency improvements.”
Cr Finlay accepted the position after it was rejected by another nominee, Graeme Winkler. Cr Hirst accepted his nomination before the Minister made the announcement that councillors were on a deadline to answer the allegations outlined in Mr Stephenson’s report.
As fate would have it, Cr Hirst said yes to the position a day before the Minister made his announcement.
“That’s my claim to fame. You get offered a job one day and the threat of it being abolished arrives on the next. I thought that was rather neat,” he said.
“I’m still very interested in seeing the job through. I can’t see how it would serve the State Government and the municipality to see a suspension of councillors. That’s where I’m coming from.”
Mayor Cr Don Hill said the two new councillors were “fantastic members of the local community”. “They’ve got the community at heart. We can work with them. This council is going to be a really good, functioning council now. It’s the best thing that could happen,” he said.