Highlights and challenges of 2019–20

Highlights and challenges of 2019–20 for the Local Government Inspectorate.

Change of Chief Municipal Inspector

Chief Municipal Inspector David Wolf departed the Inspectorate on 28 January 2020 after being appointed as a Deputy Commissioner of IBAC.

David led the Inspectorate from its beginning in 2009, until 2013. He returned to the role in 2016 and guided the Inspectorate through the general council elections of that year and then continued to lead the Inspectorate in improving integrity and accountability of local government in Victoria.

Dr John Lynch was appointed to act as the Chief Municipal Inspector while recruitment was underway for Mr Wolf’s replacement.

Dr Lynch has extensive public sector experience in legal and integrity roles and was previously Special Counsel at IBAC. Prior to working at IBAC, Dr Lynch was Crown Counsel to the Victorian Government.

New legislation

The Local Government Act 2020 received Royal Assent on 24 March 2020, with the first and second tranches of legislation coming into operation on 6 April 2020 and 1 May 2020. The third and fourth tranches commence on 24 October 2020 and 1 July 2021. In this transition period, the Inspectorate operates under both acts.

The legislation delivers reforms to improve accountability, including:

  • mandatory training for council election candidates and councillors
  • standards of conduct to guide councillor behaviour and allow for disqualification of councillors subject to two or more findings of serious misconduct
  • recognition of the need for collaboration between councils to deliver better services
  • mandatory transparency rules for handling complaints
  • deliberative engagement with communities to set each council’s Community Vision and Council Plan

The Integrity and Accountability Legislation Amendment (Public Interest Disclosures, Oversight and Independence) Act 2019 passed both houses of Parliament and received Royal Assent on 5 March 2019. Cross-agency collaboration was undertaken to prepare for changes to Victoria’s Protected Disclosure Act 2012 that came into effect on 1 January 2020. The Act, which was renamed as the Public Interest Disclosures Act 2012, introduced a range of enhanced protections for those who disclose in the public interest. The changes required the Inspectorate to review and modify its assessment and other processes.

Machinery of government changes

Following the resignation of Special Minister of State, the Hon Gavin Jennings MLC, from Parliament, machinery of government changes came into effect on 23 March 2020. Under these changes, LGI’s responsible Minister is now the Attorney-General supported by the Department of Justice and Community Safety.

The impact of COVID-19 on operations

A State of Emergency was declared in Victoria on 16 March 2020, which gave the Chief Health Officer extra powers in an effort to limit the spread of coronavirus and keep Victorians safe. The State of Emergency was extended on 31 May until 21 June 2020. Throughout this period, Victorians were directed to work from home where possible, avoid gathering in groups and limit travel.

In line with this direction, the Inspectorate closed its office on 23 March and staff worked from home for the remainder of the financial year. The transition to remote working required Inspectorate staff to find new ways to continue ongoing investigations and preparations for the 2020 local council elections. This situation is expected to continue for part of the 2020–21 financial year.

As operations were adapted for remote working, some investigations were delayed where in-person interviews were required and not possible due to travel restrictions, but the majority of investigations were unaffected. At the same time, the Inspectorate’s ability to produce and process mail was limited and several outreach activities to engage candidates and councils ahead of the 2020 local council election period were cancelled in the interests of public safety. The pandemic is expected to have impacted on quantity and type of complaints received, as councils and potential complainants focused on other concerns.