2 Sept 2019

Welcome to the spring edition of ‘integrity matters’ and as the third year of the council term draws to a close, we look at some of the work completed in analysing complaints across a council term with a particular focus on conduct matters.

We also provide an update on our proactive work looking at the support provided to councillors to enable them to fulfil their civic duty and the processes to ensure appropriate acquittal and reporting of the use of public funds.

The title of our publication, integrity matters, is very ‘on point’ for the article discussing the outcome of a prosecution case related to misuse of information by a councillor. The councillor’s actions and the ensuing public scrutiny resulted in reputational damage for the council as an organisation and for the whole councillor group. Integrity in local government does matter and where it erodes in any form, including through leaking of information for whatever purpose, the individual is at risk of personal consequences and council is at risk of losing legitimacy. It is important for the reputation of local government and the office of councillor that these cases remain a priority for this office.

And in speaking about this office, September marked the 10th anniversary of operation for the Local Government Inspectorate as the dedicated integrity agency for councils in Victoria. I am very proud of the LGI team and their achievements over the last decade and as we start preparing for the 2020 election year, we will continue our focus on improving integrity, accountability and transparency in local government.

David Wolf, Chief Municipal Inspector

Ten years of strengthening local government integrity

Monday 2 September 2019 marked the 10 year anniversary of the Inspectorate’s inception. The Local Government Inspectorate is currently the only dedicated integrity agency for local government in Australia.

Originally known as the Local Government Investigations and Compliance Inspectorate until May 2018, the Local Government Inspectorate was founded by the current Chief Municipal Inspector David Wolf.

The Inspectorate was created to provide local government in Victoria with a dedicated integrity agency to reflect the importance of community confidence in their councils.

Over the past 10 years, the Inspectorate handled:

  • 4200 complaints and allegations
  • 732 investigations – averaging 50 per year and up to 100 in election years
  • 63 prosecutions – just under 10% of investigations
  • 90 audits and examinations

Major achievements have included informing policy and legislative reform, delivering recommendations to improve council operations and integrity, and playing a key role in assessing and investigating breaches of the electoral provisions of the Local Government Act at council elections.

The Inspectorate has built networks within the sector and developed strong collaborative relationships with other Victorian integrity agencies such as IBAC, Victorian Ombudsman and Victorian Auditor-General’s Office.

Potential for damage from information leaks

There is an inherent responsibility on councillors to protect the confidentiality of information provided to them as part of their role.

A recent prosecution against a former councillor has renewed focus on preventing confidential and in-confidence information from being released to the public and revealed the reputational damage that can be done by breaking the rules.

Former South Gippsland Shire councillor Andrew McEwen has been placed on a 12-month good behaviour bond after pleading to one charge of misuse of position on 20 September. Mr McEwen was ordered to pay a $1500 donation to the local hospital and $15,000 towards prosecution legal fees.

Mr McEwen appeared in Wonthaggi Magistrates’ Court charged with the offence of making improper use of information acquired as a result of holding the position of councillor to gain or attempt to gain, directly or indirectly, an advantage for another person.

The Inspectorate case stated that Mr McEwen provided a Tarwin Lower resident with information, “to assist, or in an attempt to assist” the resident in his proceeding against the South Gippsland Shire Council in the Supreme Court. This effectively provided information to assist in a case against the council where Mr McEwen was a councillor.

Mr McEwen publicly denied the offence at the time and the court heard that he attempted to conceal evidence proving he transmitted the information. The charge laid against Mr McEwen and speculation on the information provided to residents was reported widely in media and the conduct by Mr McEwen may have formed part of the broader picture leading to the shire being dismissed.

The Report of the Commission of Inquiry into South Gippsland Shire detailed some of the Chief Municipal Inspector’s concerns about the release of confidential information to the media and community and the reputational damage done to the council as a result.

Chief Municipal Inspector David Wolf said: “We take the allegation of releasing confidential or in-confidence information seriously as it undermines the individual and broader reputation of local councils. In this case the act of misusing information had significant consequences for the person responsible and these behaviours ultimately contributed to the dismissal of the elected council.”

Annual report data reveals highest complaints for a non-election year

The Local Government Inspectorate’s Annual Report 2018/19 provides information on our progress in strengthening the integrity, accountability and transparency of local government in Victoria.

The Inspectorate received and assessed 421 complaints over the year, the highest number of complaints for a non-election year and continues the trend of an 11% annual increase calculated across the 2016-20 council term.

One major project for the year focused on reviewing and reporting on the unique employer/employee relationship between a CEO and councillors. This work highlighted cases where either the employer, the employee or a combination had failed their local community and their organisation. The report was referenced across our state and in other jurisdictions.

As part of governance examination work to assess and help improve council operations, the Inspectorate worked with and at many smaller regional councils, delivering excellent outcomes to assist in their delivery of contemporary council governance.

Chief Municipal Inspector David Wolf said: “Over the past year, other states and territories have shown increasing interest in replicating the Inspectorate model as a stand-alone investigative and compliance auditor in their jurisdictions.”

Download the report

Early data analysis reveals broad variation in councillor support

An Inspectorate project reviewing support provided to elected councillors is building a picture of the varied approaches to allowances and reimbursements for councillor expenses across the state.

After two surveys of council governance staff and councillors, the Inspectorate has been analysing the data to identify any patterns with the management of expenses and allowances, variations between regional and metro councils and other areas of interest.

While many councils deal with councillor work-related expenses differently, all provide support for items such as information technology, travel costs, training and childcare.

In the first survey, the Inspectorate received responses from governance staff at 76 out of Victoria’s 79 councils. There were 234 responses from councillors and mayors, representing nearly 40% of councillors contacted.

Some of the findings to date include:

  • average spend by councils on councillor expenses for 2016/17 was approximately $81,000, however there were broad variations in the dollar value of claims
  • eight councils supplied at least one of their councillors with a fax machine and 46 councils supplied a printer for home use
  • 94% of councils supplied councillors with a mobile phone and 76% provided them with an iPad or tablet

Reporting inconsistencies for expense categories across councils created difficulties when comparing or aggregating some councillor support data.

A final report on the findings, which will identify opportunities to improve practices or processes, is expected to be published in early 2020.

Trends in councillor conduct

Trends in councillor conduct by complaint type

  • Download' Trends in councillor conduct by complaint type'

Complaints data gained over almost three entire council terms has provided some interesting insights into the conduct of elected councillors. The above graph depicts data over the past three years but compared to the three council terms, it is consistent across those terms.

The Inspectorate identified that conduct-related issues (depicted as 'councillor behaviour' on the above graph) peaked in year three at about 20%, excluding the anomaly of election year complaints in 2016/17.

During the first year in office, data shows many legacy complaints related to councillor conduct during elections and issues such as use of mobile phones or emails for electioneering purposes. In the latter half of the first year, councillors have undergone initial induction training or refresher courses and are dealing with decisions and information related to the council plan, strategic resource plan and budget.

Complaints increase in the second year for various reasons including:

  • Personality clashes
  • Matters before council
  • Political affiliation
  • Capability or capacity of elected representatives
  • Perceived or actual power imbalance
  • Information or actions of administration.

During the third year, complaints are at a peak but intervention mechanisms are starting to take effect, including the councillor code of conduct, informal discussions, and mediation or arbitration.

These are key timings in the cycle that council staff can be aware of and support the addition of periodic training to the calendar and reminders to councillors about the role and their responsibilities to the community.

Chief Municipal Inspector David Wolf said: “We recommend councils implement their own code of conduct procedures and to use this process in the first instance before conduct issues escalate.” “We are aware of many examples where the informal process has had a positive effect. There are also some instances where the conduct has escalated, with the most telling example leading to a council being dismissed.”

Conduct issues were a main cause of the Commission of Inquiry initiated into South Gippsland Shire Council, which recommended in its final report that the council be dismissed.

In a recent example of the councillor conduct panel’s role, a four month suspension was delivered to Frankston councillor Steve Toms for serious breaches of his council’s code of conduct.

Matters related to Councillor Toms had been raised with the Inspectorate but it was assessed that the conduct panel was the appropriate avenue to determine the outcome.