THE Victorian Ombudsman has interviewed Mornington Peninsula Shire mayor Cr Graham Pittock, CEO Carl Cowie and governance manager Joe Spiteri as part of an investigation into secrecy in local government.
Complaints about the shire have been made to the Ombudsman’s office by several individuals and community-based organisations.
The Ombudsman Deborah Glass announced in March that she was making an “own motion” investigation into Victorian municipalities after receiving complaints.
“Secrecy in local government can create conditions in which improper conduct and poor administration can flourish,” Ms Glass said.
“It also fuels suspicions of wrongdoing and erodes community trust.
“Members of the public who complain to my office about council decisions occasionally mention the fact that decisions were made behind closed doors or in secret as evidence to support their concerns.”
The Ombudsman’s visit closely followed the shire’s adoption of a code of conduct which makes it an offence for councillors to “malign or criticise” each other “for the manner in which they exercise their vote in council”.
One councillor who did not want to be named for fear of contravening the code, said that particular rule was “unbelievable … it is just appalling … I couldn’t believe it was happening”.
Councillors were required to sign the code – which was adopted by a 6:4 vote on 6 June – within one month or face disqualification and being banned from seeking re-election.
Under the code councillors are also barred from speaking publicly on matters “stamped confidential or which appear to be confidential”.
The councillor said the code “is shutting down debate and transparency”.
The councillor said the wording for the code of conduct came from the shire’s “old fashioned style” governance department and some “fiddling to get what they want” by some councillors.
An example of the governance department’s “style” was an unsuccessful move earlier this year to “truncate” the time allotted to public questions at council meetings.
Ms Glass said there were more complaints to her office about local government than any other area.
In 2014-15 her office dealt with 3410 local government issues, with at least one complaint coming from within each of the state’s 79 municipalities.
Mornington Peninsula shire’s communications and media manager Mark Kestigian said the Ombudsman’s visit was made “as part of a report being developed into the issue of transparency of local government decision making”.
“According to the Ombudsman’s office, the report will consider councils’ decision making processes and seek to find out more about how often council meetings and special meetings are closed; processes regarding confidential matters; handling of delegations relating to decision making; and, the nature and quality of records kept and the public availability of those records.”
Mr Kestigian said the shire was “one of many local councils who were interviewed”.
Ms Glass said her report would “seek to inform the process” of a review into the Local Government Act 1989.
In June, the mayor Cr Graham Pittock said that while he did not agree with some of the amendments to the code of conduct, councillors had no choice but to sign it and “just agree to abide by it” (“New rules take the personal out of council debates”, The News 14/6/16).
The state government introduced reforms in March requiring all councils to revise their councillor code and adopt it by 4 July.
Among the 10-page list of expectations and behaviours, the code makes it punishable for councillors to divulge confidential information, accept gifts other than of “token value”, “malign” other councillors for their decisions, and use council resources such as mobile phones and cars, for personal use.
The code backs up state government reforms introduced last year to deal with rogue councillors, who will now face an independent conduct panel that can impose six-month suspensions.
Before the new laws, the government was only able to sack an entire council if there were ongoing problems.
Councillors who voted for the code were deputy mayor Cr Bev Colomb, and Crs Anne Shaw, Antonella Celi, David Gibb, David Garnock and Andrew Dixon; opposed were the mayor Cr Pittock and Crs Fraser, Tim Rodgers and Tim Wood.