THE state government has introduced laws to strengthen local government governance and reduce councillor misconduct.
Minister for Local Government Natalie Hutchins said the changes would improve the standard of behaviour of councillors, provide a clear process for dealing with misconduct, and empower councils and her to take action against councillors “doing the wrong thing”.
Mornington Peninsula Shire councillors will be required to sign codes of conduct, and councils will have to introduce procedures to deal with alleged breaches.
Allegations of misconduct and “serious misconduct” will be dealt with by independent councillor conduct panels, which will have the power to suspend councillors for up to six months.
The minister has new powers, including the option to recommend to the Governor-in-Council that a councillor be stood down if:
- The councillor has been accused of serious or gross misconduct and a panel or VCAT hearing is pending.
- The councillor’s behaviour represents a threat to health and safety, is preventing council from performing its functions or is inconsistent with the role of councillor.
- A municipal monitor recommends that the minister stand down a councillor.
The minister will appoint municipal monitors and can issue governance directions to councils.
The changes also prohibit ward funds, also known as discretionary funds, as recommended by the Local Government Investigations and Compliance Inspectorate.
The shire saw the writing on the wall last year and ended ward funds in May but there was a last night of spending that saw $113,934 allocated by councillors to projects such as a rotunda, a war memorial, soccer goal posts, coast guard communications equipment, and $16,000 of improvements to a Rosebud laneway. Councillors had $10,000 a year to distribute in their wards.
That final opening of the fiscal floodgates saw $46,900 spent in Briars Ward (Crs Anne Shaw, Andrew Dixon and Bev Colomb), $30,500 in Seawinds Ward (Antonella Celi, David Gibb and Graham Pittock), $9737 in Nepean Ward (Hugh Fraser and Tim Rodgers), $6797 in Cerberus Ward (David Garnock), and $20,000 in Watson Ward (Lynn Bowden) $20,000. Red Hill Ward received nothing as Frank Martin was ill and on leave. He retired soon after but was not replaced until a byelection in August elected Tim Wood.
Ms Hutchins said some of the laws would be progressively introduced over coming months to “ensure councils are ready for the changes”.
“Since becoming minister, I’ve heard from councils and communities that these changes are desperately needed. Giving councils and the state government the ability to step in earlier will help ensure problems with councillor standards and governance aren’t left to grow.”
Ms Hutchins said overall misconduct among Victoria’s 79 councils was rare but “it is vital that our governance frameworks are robust and ready to deal with misconduct”.
Mike Hast and David Harrison