Council sacking raises concerns for democracy

The Victorian Local Government Association (VLGA) and the Municipal Association of Victoria (MAV) have expressed disappointment at the removal of Wangaratta City Council by Victorian Minister for Local Government, Jeanette Powell.

Ms Powell said dismissing an elected council was the last resort, but the Government’s hand had been forced by the failure of councillors to address bullying and intimidating behaviour towards staff and fellow councillors, and the waste of ratepayer funds.

“Wangaratta Council has failed to meet its legal obligations to provide a safe workplace by allowing a culture of bullying and intimidating behaviour among some councillors towards staff to grow, impacting on staff wellbeing and leading to a large number of staff resignations.

“The Council’s failure to govern effectively has seen $1.5 million of ratepayers’ funds wasted to date on councillor dispute procedures, Councillor Conduct Panels, legal fees, staff departures and temporary replacement staff.”

The Legislative Assembly passed the Bill on September 19, and Ms Powell said she was pleased the Bill had received bipartisan support.

“The Victorian Coalition Government is keen to address this issue as quickly as possible under normal Parliamentary rules to return stability and good governance to the people of Wangaratta.”

MAV President Bill McArthur said the dismantling of a democratically elected government was never the optimum solution.

“The situation at Wangaratta has been difficult for some time and the particular circumstances impeded the Council’s ability to function cohesively for and on behalf of their community.

“This included a range of long standing and protracted behavioural issues by individual councilors, as well as issues among elected members and council officers that affected the provision of a safe work environment, leadership and effective governance of the Council.

“It is disappointing that the Minister is constrained by the legislation to either sack the whole council irrespective of whether the situation warrants that outcome, or to commence the prolonged process to remove an individual councillor where there is a case of gross misconduct to answer.

“Without other options available, we remain concerned that elected representatives can be penalised by association.”

Councillor McArthur said the dismissal highlighted the need for the Minister’s governance and conduct review currently underway ‘to examine a broader range of options that allows for a more tailored solution’.

VLGA President Samantha Dunne said the VLGA was also concerned that councillors serving on councils dismissed by the Minister would suffer ‘guilt by association’.

“The VLGA is not convinced that good conduct can be legislated. Rather, we have long argued that investment in developing a skilled and confident councillor cohort is an important preventative measure.

“This means the Victorian Government, councils and peak bodies have an obligation to ensure all councillors are able to access the professional development they need to fulfil their role and to resolve disputes when they arise.”