By Michael Giles

The former municipal monitor at the Rural City of Wangaratta, Peter Stephenson, has been appointed to a 12-month term at South Gippsland. He oversaw the dismissal of Wangaratta’s council. Photo courtesy of the Wangaratta Chronicle

“…dismissing an elected council is always the last resort but the failure of councillors to address rampant bullying and intimidating behaviour towards staff and fellow councillors, and the waste of ratepayer funds had forced the Victorian Government’s hand”.
That’s not about the South Gippsland Shire Council. But it could be.
It’s taken from the front page of the Wangaratta Chronicle in 2013, quoting the then Minister for Local Government Jeanette Powell, when the appointment of municipal monitor Peter Stephenson ultimately led to that council’s dismissal.
Now he’s been appointed here, at South Gippsland.
Will he find the same toxic environment as existed there and the same waste of ratepayers’ money dealing with councillor disputes and
legal wrangles?
Or will it prove to be even worse.
Some councillors think it’s “a joke”, we’re told.
That it’s all a media beat up.
But all will be revealed.
The Andrews Government has appointed a municipal monitor “to investigate and report on the governance of South Gippsland Shire Council”.
Minister for Local Government Marlene Kairouz yesterday (Monday, June 18 at 4.40pm) announced the appointment of Peter Stephenson for a 12-month term, effective from June 18, 2018.
“We have serious governance concerns about South Gippsland Shire Council – that’s why we’re appointing a monitor,” said Minister Kairouz.
It’s certainly no joke.
“The monitor will help ensure South Gippsland Shire Council properly serves the ratepayers it represents,” she said.
“Mr Stephenson has extensive experience in local governance, having been both an inspector of municipal administration and interim administrator at Wangaratta Rural City Council,” according to the Minister’s media release.
“The appointment of a monitor at the council follows a recommendation from the Local Government Inspectorate, which is currently undertaking an investigation at the council.
“Concerns have been raised about the council’s meeting procedures, current policies and processes to manage conflicts of interest, and the management of confidential information.
“Municipal monitors monitor council governance processes and practices, advise councils about possible governance improvements and report to the Minister on any steps taken by a council to improve its governance.
“If necessary, a monitor can recommend that the Minister take further governance measures.”
The announcement by the Minister follows an investigation by the Local Government Inspectorate into the leaking of a confidential email containing information about legal action being taken against the shire over Bald Hills Wind Farm noise complaints.
Police raided the home of Cr Andrew McEwen last month, seizing IT equipment as part of the investigation, although Cr McEwen has strenuously denied any wrong-doing.
There have been reports of other councillors being reported to, and investigated by the Inspectorate, but they told the ‘Sentinel-Times’ today that no other councillor was being investigated.
“We do receive information from time to time but there is no other investigation currently,” said a spokesperson for the Inspectorate.
The Mayor Cr Lorraine Brunt acknowledged there have been difficulties on council.
“The appointment of a municipal monitor comes as no surprise to me,” Cr Brunt said.
“It’s no secret that we’ve had some challenging times on council.
“We’ve had a concerted effort by some people to destabilise the council, so in some ways, it’s a welcome development. I hope it brings about change.”
But Cr Brunt put the focus on decision-making rather than the well-publicised bad behavior of councillors.
“There may be other reasons but I think the final straw was the bad decision-making. The C90 decision (South Gippsland Housing and Settlement Strategy deferred until July 2018) was appalling. It’s holding us back. So was the Waratah Way decision. Expert opinion gave us absolutely nowhere to go on that and we still voted to keep it.
“The Notice of Motion in March which included the wording “resolves to strongly oppose any logging as proposed by Vicforests” was another one.
“It’s not a popularity contest, we’ve got to be making good decisions based on the evidence.
“It’s poor decision making when the information is in front of you,” she said.
Cr Meg Edwards is disappointed but not surprised.
“It’s disappointing that council has come to this point but it’s not a surprise.
“It’s going to be a cost to ratepayers, a significant cost which is disappointing but that’s the space we are in.
“Hopefully we can get things back on track.”
Cr Edwards said she believed one of the biggest problems was with the decision-making process where choices were being made for emotive reasons rather than for the good of the community as a whole.
“But I wouldn’t like to see it discourage people taking part in the democratic process. We need a diverse range of talented people on council who can make decisions on the evidence rather than the noise.”
Cr Andrew McEwen was “quite happy”, he said.
“Until we’re briefed about the reasons for it, it’s difficult for me to comment.
“As I told you recently, I really feel we were starting to work quite constructively together as a council.
“I’m quite happy (with the appointment), at least it might help clarify that it’s not been a problem with the council but there could be with governance. We’ll see.”