Category Archives: Conflicts of Interest

Must read! Investigation into the transparency of local government decision making

Council Transparency

The Investigation into the transparency of local government decision making has been completed and the report publicly released.

I took the time to read through this report and found it very informative and interesting that it revealed some issues relating to Councils. Community members had reasonable concerns about transparency in their Councils and in fact there were many complaints  made to the Ombudsman.

“This investigation arose from a single complaint about a decision made in a closed council meeting – a practice that we found to be widespread across Victoria. Some complaints resonate as a theme: local councils continue to account for some 25 per cent of jurisdictional complaints to my office – more than 3,400 last year. People complaining to my office about council decisions periodically refer to the decision being made “in secret” or “behind closed doors” as evidence to support their concerns. I tabled the report into the original complaint in June 2016, but this has been a far wider investigation, looking at the transparency of decision-making within local government in Victoria.” Source: Deborah Glass Ombudsman.

As part of the investigation 79 Victorian councils were surveyed and 12  were selected to be examined in detail.  

The areas of focus were:

the closure of council meetings and special committee meetings to     the public

• the handling of confidential matters

• the nature and quality of audio and visual records of meetings and       the public’s ability to access records

• the scope and exercise of delegated council functions/powers and       administrative actions; and the reporting of these to council and           the public

• the nature and content of information discussed in ‘assemblies of         councillors’

Due to the findings, there were specific recommendations made in the report to be introduced or implemented. Here is a summary of   some of the recommendations or suggestions:

• relating to the Local Government Act, a requirement for more              detailed reasons in relation to the closure of meetings to be                    specified in the minutes and that embarrassment to, or potential          adverse criticism of, council are not reasons to close a meeting to        the public

implement a mandatory ‘Code of Councillor Conduct’ training               program       

• conflict of interest requirements to extend to advisory committee      members and to have an updated list of committees on a Council’s      website                               

• ensure that agendas are made available to public five days before a     council meeting

 public questions and answers to be recorded in minutes,  through       audio or audio-visual recording and publication, as well as posting       recorded open meetings to council websites

Did you know about section 15 Your right to freedom of expression’ under the Human Rights Charter?  

“People are free to say what they think and want to say. They have the right to find, receive and share information and ideas. In general, this right might be limited to respect the rights and reputation of other people, or for the protection of public safety and order.” Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission

How does this right play a role in Council? As stated in the report: 

“Councils also need to take care regarding restrictions on public question time. Unreasonable restrictions have the potential to be incompatible with not only the right to participate in public life, but the right to freedom of expression in section 15 of the Charter. For example, where councils require questions in writing prior to meetings, they should ensure there is appropriate assistance available to those who may have difficulty placing their question in writing. A number of councils mentioned they offered such assistance. Councils should also ensure that any restriction on the content of questions or submissions by members of the public at meetings which could be considered to limit their right to freedom of expression is appropriately balanced with any lawful restrictions reasonably necessary to respect the rights and reputation of other persons or national security, public order, public health or public morality.”

You will also find a summary of transparency in the report:
What does a transparent council look like?
What does a transparent council look like?
Page 150 -151 of the Investigation into the transparency of local government decision making report. Click to view!

Link to full report: Victorian Ombudsman: Investigation into the transparency of local government decision making

Related links: 

Local government transparency a postcode lottery: Victorian Ombudsman

Victorian public being shut out of local council meetings, ombudsman says

Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass says councils must be more transparent over their decisions

Empowering Monash & YOU post – Transparency in Council 

Empowering Monash & YOU post – Feedback to Council: Streaming/recording of meetings

Comments are welcome!

HarikNG – Administrator and Contributer

Empowering Monash & YOU

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Is your Preferred Candidate Committed to the Role of Councillor?

Victorians will vote for new municipal councils between today and October 22. The new councils will be elected for a four year term.

It’s appropriate to consider the commitment of the people who offer themselves as our representatives at the level of government closest to our community.

Since the start of this council term in November 2012 there have been two Federal and one Victorian election. Many seats in those elections have been contested by municipal councillors who had been elected on the presumption they would serve the local community for a four year term.

In the City of Monash, of 11 Councillor positions, the list looks like this:

2013 Federal Election 

Cr Geoff Lake (Glen Waverley ward) was preselected by the ALP for the seat of Hotham but returned to council after internal factional shenanigans kicked him out days before he would have been obliged to resign from council.

2014 State Election

Cr Steve Dimopoulos (Oakleigh ward), ALP, stood in the seat of Oakleigh. He was elected and resigned from council. Stefanie Perri, having been defeated as the ALP candidate for Box Hill was elected by countback to fill the vacancy.

Cr Theo Zographos (Oakleigh ward), Liberal, stood for Oakleigh and returned to council after defeat.

Cr Robert Davies (Mulgrave ward), Liberal, stood for Mulgrave and returned to council after defeat.

Cr Paul Klisaris (Mulgrave ward), ALP, unsuccessfully sought preselection for Prahran.

2016 Federal Election

Cr Stefanie Perri (Oakleigh ward), ALP, resigned from council while Mayor to stand in Chisholm. Defeated. Replaced on council by Nga Hosking after a countback.

Cr Paul Klisaris (Mulgrave ward ), ALP, resigned from council to stand in Aston. Defeated. Replaced by John Starkey on countback.

That’s six of our elected representatives using council as a political career stepping stone.  For State elections, a councillor is not required to resign, rather they take leave from close of nominations until declaration of the poll.  During that period, they are not representing the council ward by which they were elected.  Once nominations close in the Federal elections a councillor must resign thereby allowing the electoral commission to promptly conduct a countback election for a replacement councillor.

In this council term (running until October 2020) there is expected to be a Victorian State election in 2018 and a Federal election in 2019.  Which candidates standing for council are planning to quit their role, if elected, and stand for one of these elections?

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with a councillor being a member of a political party. This is only a problem when the membership combines with career ambitions incompatible with a commitment to serve residents and ratepayers.

When considering your vote this election it’s worth asking your prospective candidates about the duration of their commitment.

Dealing Monash Ratepayers a Dodgy Hand

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What do you think?

Leave your comments by clicking on the Leave a Comment button above.

EM&U will publish your letters, emails etc.  We exist to empower the community to speak out. Name and contact details must be provided though not necessarily published.  Each author is responsible for their content and views do not always represent all involved with our group.

Transparency In Council

There has been some discussion about the merit, risks and benefits of recording and publishing proceedings of our council meetings.  Council has conducted some closed, internal reviews and determined that they don’t consider it to be in the best interests of the community that we have a video record of the conduct of council meetings.  Recent behaviour and procedural chaos might actually suggest that it’s not in the interests of some councillors that too many people see what they get up to on the last Tuesday  of each month.

However, even when it’s potentially very embarrassing to some, there are councils who are not afraid to put their meetings online both live and for subsequent review.

Consider this very controversial meeting at Darebin (http://councils.apstream.net/council/public/Darebin/player.asp?Tab=2&OrgEntity=91&Meeting=1680) in which there was a serious disagreement between councillors as to whether or not they were operating in accordance with the requirements of the Local Government Act – you can’t get a lot more serious than that.

Despite the clearly strongly held divergent views and the sensitivity of the matter in question (Councillors appeared to be challenging the legality of the recent appointment of the CEO!), the meeting was conducted in a generally civil manner (at least up to the point at which four councillors walked out) and the council has not felt it necessary to censor or remove the recording.  The citizens of Darebin have the opportunity to see their council meetings live from home (especially important for those with mobility or other access issues) and to review the meeting in order to develop an informed opinion on matters of significance to their community.

Not so in Monash.  It’s time to get down to Council on the last Tuesday of each month to see and judge for yourself.  Do we need our councillors’ behaviour and processes online for all to see?  Do we have a right to know what’s going on even when we cannot get there in person?

Related Stories:

Would this really rebuild the community’s trust?

On Wednesday 2 of April 2014 the Victorian Government introduced a new legislation – Local Government Amendment (Governance and Conduct) Bill 2. The bill is reviewed and considered before it can become Law.

It is claimed these reforms will ensure good conduct by Councillors as well as ensuring councils fulfil their responsibilities appropriately.         “Victorians should know that they can trust their elected council representatives and feel confident there are effective measures in place to deal appropriately and quickly with any instance of poor conduct and performance,” Mr Bull said – Minister for Local Government.

How would this affect your Local Council? Here are some changes that will impact Councils:

  • The Mayor will need to provide guidance and ensure good working relations among Councillors and is the main spokesperson for the council
  • Councils will have to introduce a CEO Employment matters committee which will provide advice on all contractual matters relating to the CEO’s employment
  • Councillor conduct panels members will be chosen from a list of people appointed by the Minister for Local Government
  • The Act will introduce new criminal offences for unlawful direction of council staff and release of confidential information
  • The  chairperson of the  audit committee can only be a person who is not a Councillor or a member of staff
  • Councillors will not be able to nominate council funds to a person, organisation or to a fund
  • The oath of office will include the promise that Councillors will need to follow the conduct principles  and the chairperson will need to recite the oath at the start of each council meeting
  • After an election, an elected Councillor will be required to complete a councillor induction program
EM&U encourages citizens to make their own observations of the conduct of Monash Council. Monthly meetings may be viewed from the public gallery (upstairs in the Council building 293 Springvale Road, Glen Waverley 3150). The next meeting is on Tuesday 29 April 7.30 pm. EM&U members regularly attend these meetings.
Monash Ratepayers Inc (MRI) has published feedback on meetings. See: https://monashandyou.wordpress.com/2014/02/27/councillors-failed-report-card/

For more info on this new legislation please clink on links provided:

http://www.premier.vic.gov.au/images/140402_Bull_-_Conduct_reforms_to_rebuild_community_trust.pdf

http://www.dpcd.vic.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0008/223838/Governance-and-Conduct-Bill-brochure.pdf

Monash – A City in Conflict

Protest outside Council 29 Sept 2013
Protest outside Council 29 Sept 2013

A Brief History

Since July 2013 the residents and council of the City of Monash have been engaged in a bitter, destructive and wholly avoidable conflict over the Council’s plan to sell the Monash and Elizabeth Gardens residential aged care facilities.

At every Council meeting from July 2013 to January 2014 at least 200 protesters (peaking at around 700 in September 2013) were present to object to the sale.  Over that period petitions containing about 10,000 signatures were submitted.

Despite the protests Council decided in January to sell Monash and Elizabeth Gardens and the communal land upon which Monash Gardens stands.

The sale to Royal Freemasons is generally acknowledged to be a good result for aged care – it may even be the case that Council has found a provider capable of doing better by the City’s elderly than in the twenty year, oft-quoted, Council’s “long and proud history of delivering quality aged care”.  It does, however, come at the cost of the permanent loss to the community of the land used by many in the neighbourhood of Monash Gardens and, it seems very likely, a significant loss of working conditions for the staff.

So if the result is so good (assuming Royal Freemasons deliver on their very promising start), why was there such conflict and why is there still such deep distrust of and anger towards the Council?

The Role of Councils

The Local Government Act 1989[1] describes the roles and responsibilities of a Council.  Some of those are:

  • §3C(1)The primary objective of a Council is to endeavour to achieve the best outcomes for the local community having regard to the long term and cumulative effects of decisions.
  • §3C(2)(g)to ensure transparency and accountability in Council decision making
  • §3D(1)…provide leadership for the good governance[2] of the municipal district and the local community
  • §3D(2)(f)fostering community cohesion and encouraging active participation in civic life.

The Word is TRUST

At the time the sale was first publicly mooted there was considerable media attention being focussed on the abuses in a number of privately run nursing homes.  Council’s proposal to call for expressions of interest precluded any option other than a sale; people were terrified about the welfare of their elderly relatives.

In the minds of residents and caring relatives, the total lack of warning for this fait accompli was a betrayal of the trust they had placed in Council for care in the later years.

To compound the fear, Council set tender quality evaluation criteria which caused extreme uncertainty – particularly the lack of any requirement that residents could be assured they would stay where they were; Council didn’t raise the question of covenants before considerable community uproar.

The secrecy surrounding the process – Council called it “targeted consultation” and justified it on dubious grounds of commercial confidentiality – and the fallacious claims of protections for residents which were clearly, and ultimately acknowledged by Councillors, impossible to measure or implement only served to increase distrust.

When residents and relatives sought information, Council’s answers were evasive, dismissive and contradictory:

  • Council said there was a need to spend tens of millions of dollars over 20 years to upgrade the facilities but would not explain those costs (Mayor Drieberg mentioned swimming pools, gymnasiums, cafes and medical centres; Mayor Lake subsequently dismissed those items – nobody has been told the true reasons);
  • Councillor Little wrote “I will lose no sleep knowing my answers don’t satisfy you”;
  • Mayor Micaela Drieberg and CEO Andi Diamond insisted the decision was about delivering the highest quality of care and not about the money; Councillors Dimopoulos and Klisaris, in face to face meetings, both insisted the decision was “absolutely about the money”.

And yet, Councillors still dismissed the importance of the matter.  Councillor Little consistently refused to discuss or meet with support groups; Cr Dimopoulos described the issue as “by far not the most important” in his time on Council.

It is fair to say that by this time the rift between the community and Council was enormous.  A good decision might still open a pathway to better governance and reconciliation within the City.

The Other Word is RESPECT

In January 2014, Council voted, in confidential session, to sell to Royal Freemasons then returned to the public meeting to announce the decision.

Mayor Lake read a statement describing it as a win-win.

Deputy Mayor Dimopoulos, having been excused due to a personal conflict of interest arising out of his recent endorsement as the ALP candidate for the state seat of Oakleigh, was not in the chamber to hear the decision announced.  (Privatisation of aged care is contrary to Victorian ALP policy and Cr Dimopoulos’s prospective new boss in Parliament – Daniel Andrews MP, Leader of the Opposition and Member for Mulgrave – met and supported protestors and spoke himself or sent messages of support to the protest rallies.)

Councillors Klisaris and Paterson acknowledged the difficulties they had felt making the decision and the efforts and advocacy of the support groups.  Cr Lo acknowledged the passion of the support groups and promised the community that the outcome would be good for everyone.  Cr Davies explained his reasons for continuing to oppose the sale but that he believed, nevertheless, Royal Freemasons would be a good provider.

And then Councillor Little stunned the gallery by saying, “…and to the support groups, there was nothing to save!”.  What an astonishingly contemptible and contemptuous statement!  Monash and Elizabeth Gardens residential aged care facilities have enjoyed an outstanding reputation for the quality of care, the amenity of the homes and the standards of and for the staff.  This long and proud history absolutely was worth saving and, due in no small measure to the pressure and public scrutiny brought to bear on Council and the process throughout the sale, it seems that it has been saved.

Healing the Conflict

This dispute has been deeply hurtful to many in the City of Monash.  Trust, confidence in and respect for Council has been lost for many residents.  It will be extraordinarily difficult to restore that but restoration is essential for the well-being of the City.

The first steps on this path will require improvement in transparency and openness from Council.  It is NOT appropriate to hide information from the people most affected by that information.  It is not appropriate to stonewall and use technicalities to avoid answering ratepayers’ questions.

The attitude of some Councillors, that they alone know what’s best and what’s important for the City, must change – or the Councillors must be changed.  Councillors are representatives, not rulers!

Councillors must remember that they, first and foremost, represent the people of the City of Monash.  Their personal party memberships must be left outside all council matters and issues must be decided on their merits, not on the basis of to which group, inside or outside Council, a councillor belongs.  The bloc-based voting at the City of Monash is painfully obvious despite Mayor Lake’s protestations that Council should be independent of party politics.

The Role of Residents and Ratepayers

Residents and ratepayers have a wealth of knowledge and experience to contribute.  Standing for Council is one way to do this but that only allows for eleven contributors; those eleven must ensure that there are openings and opportunities to encourage the remaining 74,000 to participate when they have appropriate expertise to offer.

In the end, if we, as residents, want better governance, it is up to us to do something about it.  We can attend Council meetings to know what’s going on; question council about decisions and processes; contact our Councillors about concerns; find out about candidates and their preference recommendations; understand the voting system used to elect councillors; question candidates about their motives and allegiances and, ultimately, stand up and be counted by nominating for council ourselves.  It is only by breaking the voting blocs down to the point of irrelevance that the community’s voice can really be heard and this will not happen while residents and ratepayers are willing to allow the major political parties to use our Council as their Parliamentarian’s kindergarten.