I am proud to present the Local Government Inspectorate’s annual report for 2020–21, which is also my first report as Chief Municipal Inspector (CMI) after my appointment in April 2021.
COVID-19 continued to challenge Victorians – and councils – during 2020–21. We were challenged by multiple lockdowns, had to find ways of working safely and tried to support those who could not work.
Public health movement restrictions also provided additional challenges – and potential opportunities – for accountability and transparency. While councils had to limit public meetings and close down or restrict some services, this encouraged the growth of online meetings and forums and improved transparency of council activities to a wider audience. For the Inspectorate, the restrictions on movement forced the cancellation of planned face-to-face interviews and restricted our ability to visit councils and conduct legal proceedings. The COVID-19 restrictions also affected our education and prevention functions. I commend the professionalism and dedication of our staff in meeting these challenges.
In September 2020, we released a report on councillor expenses and allowances which made a number of recommendations to provide more guidance and consistency around the financial and other support given to councillors. We also recommended an increase in reporting and transparency.
The inspectorate prepared for months in the lead up to Victoria’s council elections, which were held in October 2020. The rise of the influence of social media and restrictions on movement as a result of COVID-19 led to a doubling of complaints to the Inspectorate. The election period saw our staff dealing with 36 complaints a day and we received a total of 848 complaints.
Administratively, we transferred from the Department of Premier and Cabinet to the Department of Justice and Community Safety as part of machinery of government changes in April 2020 and in December 2020, we transferred our systems. I would like to express my thanks to both departments for a smooth transition.
In May 2021, the third tranche of the new Local Government Act 2020 took effect. The new legislation is a major change for councils across the state and I commend councils for adjusting to the new rules and remind them that the adjustment period is now over.
We released a report on the 2020 general council elections in June 2021, which analysed the complaints we received and made 8 recommendations to help improve the integrity and democracy of local government elections. One concerning trend we looked at was the rise in complaints about social media and we recommended a change to the Act so that the rules and definitions of electoral material includes social media and online activities.
In October 2021, we published a report on personal interest returns following a major review of councillors’ personal interest returns. This review was undertaken during 2020–21 and covered 650 councillors.
Finally, I would like to acknowledge Dr John Lynch PSM, the Acting Chief Municipal Inspector from January 2020 until my appointment in April 2021. Dr Lynch led the Inspectorate through a difficult year and his knowledge, experience and dedication ensured we continued our vital contribution to the integrity of the local government sector.
Michael Stefanovic AM
Reviewed 01 December 2021