We investigate complaints and conduct own-motion investigations. Investigation outcomes can be useful to help councillors and council staff avoid breaches and committing offences under the Local Government Act.
Common breaches we come across, include:
- misuse of position
- conflict of interest
- disclosure of confidential or in-confidence information
For council general elections and by-elections, we investigate all complaints that identify a breach of the electoral laws, to protect the integrity of the elections.
The investigations mentioned below were initiated by the public, council staff or councillors, which are a key source of vital information for investigators.
Unlawful nomination in election
We received a complaint during the 2016 Melbourne City Council elections about a possible unlawful nomination by a candidate. The person who made the complaint said the candidate had listed the Kensington address of a fellow candidate on her nomination form, but did not live in the area.
We quickly investigated the complaint and charged Richard Foster, who was a councillor at the time, with aiding or abetting the unlawful nomination. Mr Foster had counselled the candidate, Brooke Wandin, a Healesville resident, to write his address on her enrolment application. Ms Wandin cooperated with the Inspectorate, admitted to the unlawful nomination and was granted a diversion with no criminal conviction recorded or fine.
At a hearing in April 2018, the court recognised the seriousness of Mr Foster’s offence and he was placed on a 12 month good behaviour bond. Prosecution legal costs were awarded in an amount to be determined.
While no convictions were recorded, public interest in the hearings and ongoing media coverage helped reinforce the serious nature of electoral offending. The unlawful nomination acts as a warning to any future candidates.
Failing to submit a campaign donation return
Nearly 15% of candidates failed to submit a campaign donation return after the 2016 general council elections. After a campaign to educate and give warnings to anyone who failed to submit a return, 15 candidates were prosecuted for not complying.
Greater Dandenong City Council candidate Ha Dang Quach was prosecuted in March 2018 for failing to submit a campaign donation return by the deadline. The court took into account Mr Quach’s prior convictions in making a determination. Mr Quach was convicted and ordered to pay a $800 fine and $1750 towards prosecution legal costs.
Transparent disclosure of campaign funding is important to maintain the integrity of elections and if candidates are elected, the future decision making of councils.
Misuse of a corporate credit card
We received a complaint that the CEO of Central Goldfields Shire Council was misusing the corporate credit card.
We asked the council to supply supporting documents and statements, which lead to a full audit of council governance issues.
The court convicted the now former CEO on all charges. He was ordered to pay $26,000 in fines and $10,000 towards legal costs.
Findings from the council investigation were:
- in August 2017
- discussed in newsletters and several presentations to public sector leaders and council staff and councillors,
- at 2 major corruption and integrity conferences
Councils have since contacted us for advice on issues highlighted in the report.
Conflict of interest: voting on competitor’s business location
We received an allegation that Mornington Peninsula Shire councillor Graham Pittock had voted on the Southern Peninsula Aquatic Centre (SPA) while operating his Tonic Centre squash and gym business. If true, this would be a conflict of interest between Cr Pittock’s civic duties and private interests.
The SPA, which was to be built on the Rosebud Foreshore, was intended to include a gymnasium. Cr Pittock’s Tonic Centre was approximately 10km away in Dromana.
Cr Pittock was found guilty on 2 counts of conflict of interest for voting on the SPA while operating his Tonic Centre. Councillor Pittock was fined $4000 and ordered to pay legal costs.
We receive regular enquiries about potential conflicts of interest by councillors, staff or people providing advice to council. This is an example of a clear conflict of interest according to the Act versus ‘perceived’ conflicts. It also shows the lengthy process of proving matters in court beyond reasonable doubt.
Releasing confidential information and serious misconduct
Public knowledge of confidential council matters is a frequent complaint to the Inspectorate, which raises issues of councillor misconduct or serious offences.
We received a complaint about releases of confidential information by East Gippsland Shire councillor Ben Buckley. We applied for a Councillor Conduct Panel to make 3 findings of serious misconduct against Cr Buckley. Two of the three allegations were found proven by the panel in February 2017 and Cr Buckley was suspended from office for 4 months.
Cr Buckley appealed the suspension at the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT). VCAT vice-president Judge Frances Millane upheld the 4 month suspension recommended by the panel.
Councillors misusing their position
‘All decisions involving the CEO need to be made by the full council. They should not be delegated. All councillors need to be made aware of the specifics of the CEO contract.'
During our regular investigations, we found that 3 contracts were not properly conducted, for the same CEO, at 2 different councils.
Contracts were negotiated by the councillors to give favourable terms to the CEO. The contract also left the employer exposed to financial risk due to costly exit clauses.
The same CEO was investigated when employed at another council. The investigation lead to the prosecution of 2 mayors and a councillor for misuse of position by exceeding their authority in agreeing to contract arrangements during the CEO appointment process.
Moonee Valley councillors Paul Giuliano and Shirley Cornish plead guilty to misuse of position at the Broadmeadows Magistrates’ Court regarding a decision they made about council business, without receiving a resolution of council.
Cr Giuliano was placed on a 12 month good behaviour bond without conviction and ordered to pay $6000 in fines and court costs. Cr Cornish pleaded guilty and received a 12 month good behaviour bond and ordered to pay $8000 in fines.
The case against the mayor at the second council was determined to have reached the prosecution threshold but was withdrawn before the case went to court.
All 3 investigations show that it’s important for the CEO to make decisions with the full council. It also demonstrates transparency in council decisions to ratepayers.
'What must be remembered is there is enormous variability in the level of skills of councillors, particularly in relation to performance monitoring the CEO.’ Metropolitan council mayor
Reviewed 26 February 2020