THERE was still a twist in the tale before the South Gippsland Shire Council ‘received and noted’ a recent decision by VCAT, at last week’s council meeting, dismissing an adverse finding against Cr Don Hill.
As a result, he no longer has to undertake six months of training on council’s procedures and improving his communication skills with other councillors and officers.
But it wasn’t Cr Hill, but rather Cr Lorraine Brunt and Cr Andrew McEwen who had each other in the firing line.
Far from accepting the findings in the VCAT decision, Cr Brunt alleged that there were numerous factual errors in the appeal report, claims that prompted Cr McEwen to warn that Cr Brunt was running close to contempt of court.
“I’ll note Mr Mayor that there are factual errors in the report,” Cr Brunt said in response.
She said the two days of the hearing in January 2017 had been omitted from the report, only listing the August and November dates of the hearing.
“Within the report there are other factual errors,” she claimed, alleging that there had been a misinterpretation of evidence.
“The Minority Report just for one, it says I am satisfied that the report had the concurrence of at least one other councillor. This is factually incorrect as the other councillors (on the rating review committee) were Cr Fawcett and myself (two of the parties who brought the action against Cr Hill and therefore unlikely to offer their concurrence).
“And this is what the final outcomes were made of,” she claimed.
Cr Brunt also said that it was 12 months between when the original decision was appealed and the final ruling handed down by VCAT on August 10, 2017.
She claimed there were confusions in the latest decision handed down by VCAT Member Gerard Butcher.
She said the original panel hearing had two panel members who came to the original decision of wrong-doing by Cr Hill but the appeal was heard by one panel member.
She also criticised Cr Hill for saying that she should pay a third share of the $45,000 cost.
Cr Brunt claimed that mediation was offered but that it wasn’t attended by Cr Hill but he raised a point of order saying this simply wasn’t true.
Cr Brunt rephrased her statement saying that mediation had apparently failed before she was given an opportunity to participate.
She said that all that was asked for at the time was an apology, a simple apology but it had ended up costing a lot of council time and money.
“I’m happy to accept the report, and I accept the money that was spent but I’m not responsible for the money that was printed in the paper.” She concluded.
Cr Jeremy Rich said the process of trying to sort out the difference of opinion in the past regime had not been acceptable to the parties, nor the cost to the ratepayers.
He said there were implications the council had to learn from and not go down that road again.
“We need to, as a council, to adhere to our processes of collaboration,” he said.
“There is a process that has happened. A VCAT decision has been handed down and there are things we can learn from.
“We need to, as a council, to adhere to our collaboration which is in our code of conduct, rather than to degenerate into an adversarial fight which ends up in a process like this which doesn’t help our shire. So that was the reason why I was raising that comment.
“So if Cr Edwards would like to be adversarial, please…”
Cr Edwards wasn’t happy with the slight
“Point of order. I’d like to raise that as a breach of our Code of Conduct just then Mr Mayor and I’d like you to note that.”
“Is it a point of order or are you lodging a complaint,” Cr Argento asked.
“I’d like you to note that as a breach whether I choose to do anything about it.”
McEwen then had his say:
“It appears that I am on a different planet to my fellow councillors. The clear finding of this panel was that it was a frivolous process which was over a difference of opinion which cost, what, $40,000-odd.
“That’s the finding. In context, there was serious bullying going on in that council. There was a finding against a councillor of serious bullying. It was not a safe environment. It bears no relation… [point of order – relevance].
“The finding of the panel, and the panel has to re-examine the whole of the case so that the first panel doesn’t exist. They examine the whole case again and the outcome is a total and utter vindication of Cr Hill, of his integrity, of his honesty, of his willingness to speak and work with people with courtesy and to his respect. Any other suggestion to that is malicious and libellous,” said Cr McEwen.
Cr Edwards then moved a point of order about relevance again and also moved a procedural motion that the motion be put, but, against standing orders, the Mayor Cr Argento either didn’t register or chose to ignore that motion and the debate went on.
Cr McEwen spoke about it being a cost to council and also to Cr Hill, who he said was damaged by the process despite being exonerated.
He went on to claim that some of the comments made by Cr Brunt about the VCAT findings “ran close to being contempt of court”. He said council couldn’t argue with a VCAT finding.
Cr Edwards raised another point of order, claiming Cr McEwen’s comments were “an act of disorder”.
It was upheld and Cr McEwen retracted the comment.
He said that if people had doubts about the decision, there was a legal process that could be followed, to a higher court.
But he continued on to say that Cr Brunt was “skirting on very dangerous territory” when she said there was something factually wrong in the report.
“This is really a sad day for council. Hopefully we’ve got rid of that. There is no bullying going on in this council. I saw real bullying going on in the last council.”
He said he’d like to see council work collaboratively together in the future and not go down the costly and damaging adversarial route.
Cr Hill read from a written statement that was basically a repeat of what was contained in the VCAT finding of no fault against him, overturning a previous ruling.
He said it was a political attack on him “by the majority block” in the last council designed to damage his reputation ahead of last year’s council elections.