‘We could have sorted this out ourselves’: Cr Harding

By Danika Dent

THE ongoing dispute between South Gippsland Shire councillors, which has already cost ratepayers $23,000, had its sequel recently (at another $11,000).
A Councillor Code of Conduct panel was convened to hear Cr Don Hill’s complaints against Cr Jim Fawcett and its findings published last week.
Of the five complaints against Cr Fawcett, which alleged contravening a confidentiality clause, misrepresenting constituents, disrespecting a councillor, coercion and leading an ongoing bullying campaign, one was substantiated by the independent panel.
The panel found Cr Fawcett breached the code of conduct (clauses 2.2c and 3.1b), which governs treating “all persons with respect… and due regard to their opinions”.
At the July 27 meeting, Cr Fawcett will ‘stand reprimanded’ and no other action is scheduled to occur.
At the crux of the hearing was a private conversation between Cr Fawcett and the then Mayor Jeanette Harding in June 2015.
At the meeting in question, Cr Don Hill successfully changed the Rating Strategy which classified farming properties down from 20ha to 18.3ha; it was described by opposing councillors at the time as “policy on the run”, a personal campaign and overturning the community Rating Strategy Committee.
At the time, Cr Harding supported Crs Hill and Andrew McEwen (along with Bob Newton and Kieran Kennedy) to change the Rating Strategy.
The panel found that when Cr Fawcett approached Cr Harding to ‘induce her to change her vote’ at the following budget meeting he breached the Councillor Code of Conduct.

Interfering councillor
Cr Harding said she was “ashamed” that a private conversation between Cr Fawcett and herself had been hijacked for a Councillor Code of Conduct panel hearing.
She did not lodge the complaint and said in a written statement with Cr Fawcett that she ‘would have preferred to address the matter directly’ with the councillors affected.
“I am quite ashamed at all of this; this arguing with one another is very degrading,” Cr Harding said.
“I had a disagreement with Cr Fawcett and I did think we had sorted it out ourselves.
“Cr Fawcett and I have spoken to one another and I think we have both behaved like adults.
“Something was said, I objected to it, Cr Fawcett apologised. I accepted his apology.
“I didn’t feel this had anything to do with other councillors.
“It was said in the moment and the moment it was said it was withdrawn.
“Cr Fawcett and I have shaken hands.”
Cr Harding said she and Cr Fawcett remain committed to serving the community and would not allow the incident to derail that.

Fawcett apologies
Cr Fawcett apologised to Cr Harding and said in a statement:
“… I have been found to have breached clauses 2.2c and 3.1b of the Councillor Code of Conduct.
“Those clauses require a councillor to treat other councillors with respect having due regard to their opinions, beliefs, rights and responsibilities even when disagreeing with their views or decisions.
“I have been reprimanded for attempting to induce Cr Harding to change her vote on a matter before council.
“I am disappointed that I was unable to resolve the matter directly with Cr Harding as once Cr Hill lodged the complaint there was no opportunity for mediation to occur between myself and Cr Harding.
“I would like to say that I regret that my behaviour during a brief private conversation regarding her vote caused her undue distress and unreservedly apologise.
“I have spoken to Cr Harding who has accepted my apology.
“Cr Harding also said that she would like to make it clear she did not lodge this complaint and would have preferred to have addressed the matter directly with me.
“Common sense should have prevailed.
“This was not possible because of the action taken by Cr Hill.
“I am pleased that the panel has seen fit to reject all other complaints made by Cr Hill concerning my behaviour and actions toward him.
“They found the claims unsubstantiated and not credible.”

‘Justified’ Cr Hill says
Cr Hill said lodging the complaint was justified following Cr Fawcett’s behaviour and Cr Fawcett’s (with Crs Lorraine Brunt and Mohya Davies) own complaints against him.
Cr Hill said he thought Cr Fawcett had “got off on a technicality” and called for Cr Fawcett to be suspended.
“Cr Fawcett has been misbehaving for a while now and it culminated in the spurious allegations against me,” Cr Hill said, referencing the panel hearing against him, and findings that Cr Hill had breached the Code of Conduct, which he is now appealing through VCAT.
“I raised Cr Fawcett’s behaviour in council a number of times and he started a complaint against me… There comes a point when you have to say enough’s enough.
“When it came to Cr Fawcett putting in a complaint about me I had to act.”

Mayor disappointed
For the second time in his term of Mayor, and in his year which is meant to be his ‘swan song’ after 24 years serving the community as a councillor, Bob Newton used his Mayor’s Message (printed on page 10) to register his displeasure at councillor behaviour.
“… I would like to draw a line in the sand when it comes to how we manage ourselves as representatives of this community.
“We have three months remaining in our term and I call on my colleagues to demonstrate the sort of goodwill and trust that we’d like to see in all future councils, not the strife and bitterness that has divided this council over the last few months.”