Local Government Professionals Victoria (LGPro) has welcomed the Independent Broad-Based Anti-Corruption Commission’s (IBAC) latest investigation, which highlights the urgent need for reform in the Victorian Local Government sector. 

IBAC’s Operation Sandon special report identifies broad, systemic misconduct and corruption vulnerabilities at both state and local government levels. 

LGPro agreed with IBAC’s assessment that vulnerabilities exist in the processes for managing alleged councillor misconduct and welcomed many of its reform recommendations, including sanctions for misconduct that are adequate and applied appropriately, explicit provisions in the councillor code of conduct that allow council officers and members of the public to make complaints to the Chief Municipal Inspector, and the publication of data on arbitration and complaint processes. 

Mirroring recent submissions LGPro has made to both the Local Government Minister and the Local Government Inspectorate, LGPro agreed with the importance placed on improving council governance. 

IBAC’s report states that “poor governance can also undermine a council’s effectiveness and allow decisions to be disputed. This can damage councillor reputations and the community’s trust in their local government”.

The report also explains that “mechanisms for addressing poor councillor conduct need to be clear, timely, and responsive. They must also be enforceable, ensuring that meaningful sanctions are applied to deter others from similar behaviour”.

LGPro said it welcomes IBAC’s recommendation that the Minister for Local Government develop and maintain a model councillor code of conduct and model governance rules that include better practice provisions to apply to all councils, and its further recommendation that the Local Government Act be amended to specify that councils must adopt both the model code of conduct and the governance rules. 

Operation Sandon found that, as a group, councillors in question exhibited and tolerated behaviour that did not meet the standards required of them. In the case of some councillors, this involved a conscious departure from those standards, while others demonstrated a poor understanding of their obligations as elected officials. 

Adoption of the reforms articulated in LGPro’s recent submission, Councillor Conduct: The case for legislative reform, aims to also help in addressing such conduct issues. 

IBAC’s report mirrors many of the findings articulated in LGPro’s submission, including its statement that council CEOs’ ability to appropriately address misconduct and mitigate related corruption risks is hampered by legislation and the fact that councillors directly employ them.

LGPro President, Liana Thompson, said that legislation relating to councillor conduct must be considered as part of a broader policy framework aimed at encouraging good governance, with opportunities and mandates for councillors to better understand what inappropriate conduct looks like, and why it erodes the concept of good governance.

“The conduct and professionalism of officers was not called into question by IBAC’s report. It is important to note though that if they were, there are mechanisms in place to readily police such behaviour of officers, but less so in the case of councillors.” 

MAV reacts 

Municipal Association of Victoria (MAV) President, David Clark, said while the council at the centre of the investigation was dealt with swiftly, a range of other key players have not yet faced any consequences for their role in these matters. 

“All Victorians will want to know what consequences await the other key participants in this saga, including past and current members of parliament, lobbyists, and individuals and entities within the development sector,” Cr Clark said. 

“The issues interrogated by Operation Sandon should be of interest to us all given they affect multiple parts of public administration in the state.” 

Cr Clark said MAV will work through the planning recommendations with the sector. 

“The recommendations offer an important opportunity to improve transparency and accountability within the planning system. 

“It is essential that the recommended taskforce meaningfully consult with the local government sector, particularly around recommendations to set up independent planning panels and take statutory planning powers away from councillors.  

“With the report clearly stating that corruption risk cannot be resolved by transferring responsibility from elected councillors to a minister, it would be a travesty for the Victorian Government to use the findings to centralise planning powers within the backrooms of Spring Street.” 

The report recommends a suite of changes to governance, building on the already significant reforms introduced in the Local Government Act 2020. 

“As the most transparent level of government, we know how important the governance recommendations are and we’re committed to working through them with our members and the State Government. 

“We must ensure these recommendations enhance community trust, which is critical for all levels of government, but particularly for local government.”

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