A report finds “poor behaviour” in Victoria’s local councils is stopping councillors and council staff from doing their jobs properly.
- The report finds councillors are concerned about training, the use of social media and poor behaviour
- It also finds councillors are concerned their allowances do not reflect the amount of work required
- Local Government Minister says there are plenty of councils doing “a great job”
The state government report into culture in local government received 142 submissions, including from mayors, council staff and councillors.
“It is clear there is poor and unacceptable behaviour occurring in the local government sector,” the report found.
Some of the themes raised in the council report have already been spilling out in local council meetings.
At Hume City Council — in Melbourne’s north — the council recently revealed that, in less than two years, it had spent $142,898 of ratepayers’ money in legal fees dealing with complaints about councillor behaviour.
The council tallied the cost of 22 applications for internal arbitration between November 2020 and May 2022, mostly made by councillor Trevor Dance.
Only two of the applications led to adverse findings.
The council noted the total amount did not include ongoing matters, including Mr Dance’s appeal against a serious misconduct finding, and a complaint with the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission.
At a meeting this month, councillor Jack Medcraft told the Hume Council the figure represented “a waste extreme”.
“We’re looking at $142,000 of ratepayers’ money gone which, has basically gone down the gurgler, for what?” he told the meeting.
“Only one of the [complaints] was found to have breached the code and, ironically, it wasn’t me, even though there was something like 17 investigations against me for all sorts of things.”
Councillor Joseph Haweil said he had also been the subject of complaints that had not been upheld.
“Going through that complaints process can be quite traumatic and stressful,” he said.
He urged his colleagues to work together to avoid disputes leading to increasing legal bills.
Mr Dance did not respond to the ABC’s request for comment.
Bad behaviour a problem in local government
The state government commissioned the review into culture in local government in May 2021.
Among the top issues, 55 per cent of respondents were concerned about the level of training for councillors, 37 per cent raised issues with social media and 23 per cent raised issues with how poor behaviour was managed.
In March, the ABC revealed a former Moonee Valley mayor who had misled a community grants program was still sitting on the council.
In April, the state government appointed a municipal monitor to three local councils, to address issues with governance and culture.
The Local Government Minister, Shaun Leane, said problems with councils were not across the board.
“Councils are doing fantastic work every day, and there’s 50,000 workers who do a great job every day,” he said.
“But it is quite a sad thing that so much time gets spent on one or two individuals, and the way they are behaving.”
He said the government would support councils and the local government sector to act on the report.
‘Male-dominated’ workplace not appealing to women
The report found that women, people from diverse backgrounds and those with disabilities were often not “inspired” to stand for election.
“When they do, they may face harassment, lack of formal support and retribution for calling out poor behaviour,” the report found.
“There is a view that the local government sector is male-dominated, with a lack of flexible work arrangements for those with caregiving responsibilities.”
In 2020, 272 women were elected in Victoria’s local government elections — the most in Australian history, at 43.8 per cent of councillors.
Councillor Sarah Race loves representing her community at the Mornington Peninsula Shire Council, but said more needed to be done to attract and retain women in leadership.
The council has had 29 mayors, and only six have been women. Six have been called David.
“People are quite shocked at that, and it shows the issue with female leadership at the political level,” Ms Race said.
She said many people in the community did not understand the role of councillors.
“It can be a 30-50 hour week, depending on what is going on. It is not necessarily family friendly and it does not pay well at all,” she said.
Calls for better training and councillor support
The report noted there was concern about the level of council allowances.
“We have also heard through the submissions that the Councillor allowance is not reflecting the level of competency, responsibility and the amount of work required for the role,” the report found.
In March 2022, the base allowance for a councillor was set between $24,080 and $53,957 per year, depending on the council.
The base yearly allowance for a mayor ranges from $74,706 to $238,634.
Victorian Local Governance Association (VLGA) chief executive Kathryn Arndt said more needed to be done to educate the public about the role of councils.
“These are multi-million dollar service delivery businesses that employ thousands of staff and manage significant budgets,” she said.
She said it was important to acknowledge councils operated in “politicised environments”.
“The VLGA welcomes the review into the culture of local government in Victoria — similar reviews are taking place in Tasmania — and other states are reporting increasing numbers of reports of poor behaviour in local government, most often in the council chamber,” she said.
She said the VLGA would like to see better mandatory training for candidates, and more support for councillors.