Former Benalla Shire councillor pleads guilty

Former Benalla Shire Councillor William van Wersch pleaded guilty to six charges related to personal interest return non-disclosures at a plea hearing at Benalla Magistrates Court on 5 July.

Mr van Wersch, who unsuccessfully stood for re-election in 2020 after one term, was fined $5,000, without conviction, and ordered to pay legal costs of $3,500.

He pleaded guilty to six charges, brought by the Inspectorate, in relation to his personal interests returns, which is a requirement under the Local Government Act. While the offences occurred under the 1989 Act, declaring personal interests continues to be a requirement under the Local Government Act 2020.

The court heard that, during his four-year term, Mr van Wersch failed to submit two interest returns within the required timeframe.

He also failed to disclose a number of personal interests in five of his ordinary returns, which included companies in which he held office or a beneficial interest, as well as land interests and trust interests.

The Inspectorate laid 18 charges against van Wersch related to the non-disclosures, which were reduced after the defendant’s offer of a guilty plea on six rolled-up charges.

Councillors and other relevant people in local government must declare their personal interests under the Local Government Act. Declaring interests allows the public to see the shareholdings, trusts, business associations and other private interests of the people making decisions at councils.

Chief Municipal Inspector Michael Stefanovic AM said: “Submitting accurate personal interests returns is vital for the transparency of local government and a way for the community to ensure that decisions are made in an impartial manner for the benefit of the community and not for personal gain.

“We welcome the decision by the Magistrates’ Court. Communities have the right to expect the highest levels of integrity from their councillors. It also sends a message to councillors across Victoria that submitting accurate personal interests returns is essential.”

The Inspectorate identified issues with Mr van Wersch’s personal interests returns as part of a large project started in mid-2020. The project examined 4,600 personal interests returns from 650 councillors at 78 councils for compliance with the requirements of the Local Government Act 1989.

We subsequently found issues with Mr Van Wersch’s returns which led to the charges.