Most complaints we receive are made in good faith. However, we have experienced an increase in the number of unreasonable or vexatious complainants contacting us in the past year.
Unreasonable requests include:
- persistent requests to find out how an investigation is progressing
- a complainant lodging repeated complaints because they fail to understand why their complaint has not been investigated or disagree with the outcome
- a complainant using their own misinterpretation of the Local Government Act to repeatedly question why a matter cannot be investigated.
Our office consists of skilled investigators who are experienced at assessing information to see if offences under or breaches of the Act have occurred. However, we are not able to investigate local government matters which are outside our jurisdiction.
We will always give advice to the complainant if a complaint should be taken to another body for investigation, such as Victoria Police or another integrity agency.
Since its inception in 2009, the Inspectorate has been contacted by many complainants who either ask us to reopen investigations or repeatedly submit the same complaint. Some examples of unreasonable complainant behaviour we see include:
- a complainant submitting up to six emails a day
- a complainant submitting more than 1,500 complaints in a year, most of which did not amount to offences under the Act.
Mr Stefanovic said: “Our remit to investigate under the Act is limited and currently, too much of our investigators’ time and resources are occupied dealing with requests to investigate matters that fall outside this remit, such as civil matters, council service issues or a breach of the code of conduct.
“Complainants need to exhaust all avenues in working with council to resolve and or respond to their issues and not in the first instance refer matters to the Inspectorate as their advocate.”
While other jurisdictions and agencies such as the Office of the Independent Assessor in Queensland can fine people up to $11,700 for making repeated frivolous or vexatious complaints, we currently prefer an education-based approach to resolving these matters. However, people who abuse or harass our staff will be referred to Victoria Police. Our complaints handling staff will continue to follow guidance from the Victorian Ombudsman on dealing with challenging behaviour.
Case study: repeated requests for investigation
A complainant submitted repeated requests for investigation on matters relating to an inner metropolitan council’s lease arrangements and contract tendering. The complainant had relied on their own interpretation of sections 186 and 190 of the 1989 Act as to the legality of council’s actions.
In responding to five separate complaints, our staff found no breaches of the Act had occurred and conveyed this to the complainant, along with the reasons why the council’s actions did not breach the Act.
After receiving an outcome letter on one matter, the complainant submitted a further 23 requests for the Inspectorate to investigate the same complaint that had already been closed. There was no suitable justification provided for the matter to be reopened.
Case study: misuse of complaints process to resolve internal disputes
Over an 11-month period, we received several complaints from two councillors at the same council, containing vague and unsubstantiated allegations against their fellow councillors and CEO.
Councillor A made three separate complaints, the majority of which related to matters that needed to be discussed or resolved internally as potential breaches of the council’s code of conduct policies. Despite being informed the reasons why we could not assist with their complaints, Councillor A continued to phone and email our staff up to 10 times a week but did not provide any new information to support their complaints.
Councillor B lodged seven complaints, including one complaint consisting of 10 separate emails and more than 120 pages of material, none of which adequately supported their multiple allegations of misconduct.
These complaints and responses by the complainants amounted to, at best, clear misunderstandings of the council’s complaint resolution process or at worst, an attempt to subvert that process and sow dissent amongst councillors.