THE Minister for Local Government Shaun Leane has been asked to investigate events leading up to the adoption last year of amended governance rules by Mornington Peninsula Shire councillors.
The Nepean Ratepayers Association has told Mr Leane that differences among shire councillors had led to “a complete breakdown in the democratic process”.
It wants Mr Leane to “ascertain if this council and its executive officers have exercised sound judgement and good governance practices and are fit and proper people to continue in their respective roles”.
The association has told Mr Leane that some councillors were deliberately not told about the proposed changes until asked to adopt them at a public council meeting in November.
The association alleges that the flow of information was restricted to a bloc of six councillors because their five colleagues were not supportive of the amendments, which had also been discussed by shire CEO John baker and in-house lawyer Amanda Sapolu.
The proposed changes were the subject of a series of emails sent over a period of at least three weeks between the then mayor Cr Despi O’Connor, Cr Sarah Race, Mr Baker, Ms Sapolu and four other councillors (“‘No-support’ councillors left out of email loop” The News 26/10/21).
Current mayor Cr Anthony Marsh was one of the six councillors included in the email “communication circle”.
Cr O’Connor has taken leave of absence from Briars Ward to stand as an independent candidate for Flinders in this year’s federal election.
There are 79 municipal councils in Victoria and The News has been told that about 25 per cent of complaints lodged with Local Government Inspectorate over the past year involve Mornington Peninsula Shire councillors.
The inspectorate’s 2020-21 annual report said it had received 1164 complaints during the financial year, which resulted in 55 inquiries and the issuing of 164 warnings. Although the number of complaints was nearly triple those of the previous year, none led to prosecutions.
The inspectorate investigates matters relating to council operations and possible offences under the Local Government Act involving councillors, senior council officers and anyone subject to conflict of interest electoral provisions of the Local Government Act.
In its letter to Mr Leane signed by its president Colin Watson, the Nepean Ratepayers’ Association claims factions had developed between “certain councillors and members of the MPSC executive management”.
“It would appear that these ‘blocks’ [sic] were developed not specifically on political preferences or alignments, but more to do with an individual’s personality.”
The long letter to Mr Leane covers the election of eight first-term councillors to the 11-member council and the revelations unearthed through a freedom of information (FOI) request leading to the adoption of the amended governance rules. “Disappointingly, the correspondence obtained evidenced that Cr Race’s motion was not a last minute proposal as she had stated, but rather a well contrived, deliberate action to bypass the reasonable, accepted democratic process,” the association stated. “Indeed, Cr Race and the mayor, Cr O’Connor had, in collaboration with MPSC chief executive officer, Mr John Baker, and the manager – legal and governance, Ms Amanda Sapolu, spent the 12 days prior to the meeting, planning and orchestrating the introduction of the proposed amendment to the governance rules that would be introduced by Cr Race.
“As much as six councillors clearly displayed a complete lack of ethical judgement and personal integrity in the process that they conspired and implemented, it also raises the question as to both the roles of [Mr Baker and Ms Sapolu].
“Clearly, all the emails and associated communication concerning Cr Race’s proposed motion should have been provided to all councillors, and not just those councillors that would be supportive of the motion.”