Highlights and challenges of 2021–22

Highlights and challenges of 2021–22 is a chapter of the Local Government Inspectorate's 2021–22 Annual report. This chapter looks at issues we have faced during the financial year.

Case management system

Our Lotus Notes-based complaints management system has reached the end of its lifecycle and will soon no longer supported by the Victorian Government IT provider, CenITex.

Producing investigation reports and statistical analysis using the current system is also extremely labour intensive. Consequently, replacing the system is an urgent priority.

A project was established with technical experts from the Department of Justice and Community Safety to replace the old system with modern, fit-for-purpose that can enable improved tracking of cases, trend analysis and reduce data duplication across multiple software packages.

Supreme Court ruling

On 29 November 2021, the Supreme Court delivered a decision to confirm that the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) continues to have the power under the Local Government Act 2020 to make orders to have a councillor stood down whilst criminal proceedings are continuing.

Under the 1989 Act, we had certain powers but the retention of these powers under the 2020 Act was questioned in a VCAT hearing.

Justice Quigley delivered the judgment, settling an important question of law regarding section 229 of the Act. Her Honour ruled that decisions can be made without first having satisfied the elements set out in the preceding subsections in Division 6, Part 7.

Council visits

Speaking to councils and councillors is at the heart of what we do. It is vital for us to meet with councillors and remind them of their obligations under the Act and learn from their experiences. We also visit councils to make presentations, conduct interviews and do governance examinations.

These activities were restarted after the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions and when travel across Victoria returned to normal. We have since made trips to the southwest, northwest and northeast. We have also visited and presented to councils in metropolitan Melbourne.

Personal interests returns

In October 2021, we released a report into a wide-ranging governance examination of the personal interest declarations of 650 councillors. The Inspectorate conducted an examination of all councillors’ returns for 78 councils between October 2016 and February 2020. An examination of Whittlesea councillors’ personal interests returns was conducted as part of a separate investigation.

Along with other integrity agencies, we have identified that incomplete and inadequate personal interest disclosure is a historical and ongoing issue affecting the local government sector.

Personal interests returns: Encouraging disclosure and increasing transparency revealed details about how many councillors submitted accurate returns in this period, what they failed to disclose and some of the reasons they gave for failing to make the disclosures.

Councillors and key council staff must provide – and regularly update - accurate records of their personal interests under the Act.

We published the report to make public the issues attached to the submission of personal interests returns. The report also included recommendations to law makers and to those required to submit returns to improve both the process and the level of compliance.

Campaign donation returns

Following the 2020 council elections we conducted a review of campaign donation returns. The Act requires that all candidates must submit a declaration to the chief executive officer of the council where they are standing for election within 40 days after the election. They must make this declaration even if they received no donations of money or in-kind support worth $500 or more.

Our investigation found that, of a total of 2,192 candidates, 144 failed to submit a campaign donation return within the required 40 days. However, 34 candidates subsequently submitted a late return.

The remaining 108 candidates who failed to comply were issued with an official warning.

However, the rate of non-compliance had halved compared to the 2016 council election when 290 candidates failed to comply.

It is pleasing to see an improvement in the number of candidates declaring their campaign donations in 2020 compared to 2016 and we will continue our guidance and education program with the aim of ensuring candidates understand their responsibilities to submit campaign donation returns for future elections.