MIRBOO North’s Maxine Kiel dropped a bombshell on the South Gippsland Shire Council last Wednesday, September 26, announcing her resignation while repeating the bullying and abuse allegations she made last year.
In so doing, she moved the council a step closer to being dismissed or suspended later this year by Local Government Minister Marlene Kairouz, who, it is understood, either watched the former councillor’s resignation speech on the council’s live streaming service or saw excerpts of it afterwards.
The Minister made the following comment:
“The government notes the resignation of Cr Kiel and expects the council to continue operating in the best interests of the community,” said Minister Kairouz.
“We will continue to monitor this situation and liaise with the Municipal Monitor (Peter Stephenson) to ensure council continues to provide good governance.”
The Minister also reminded councillors to “conduct themselves with respect and consideration towards one another and to work together to serve the best interests of the people they represent”.
Mr Stephenson was present when Cr Kiel explained her reasons for her early departure in an emotion-charged address at the end of Wednesday’s meeting:
“I have been working hard in my role as councillor but finding it very difficult to be effective when it appears to me other members of council are not here to achieve council’s policy objectives,” she said, quoting headlines in the local media about Cr McEwen’s house being raided by the police, the appointment of the monitor over conflict and governance problems and Cr Rich’s family company taking the shire to VCAT.
Cr Kiel went on to say how “extremely frustrating and demoralising” it was not to be able to work for the good of the community, noting that the behaviour of some councillors had not changed since she called out the “harassment of fellow councillors, the constant tantrums… and emails attacking my right to have an opinion” a year ago.
“The lack of respect for fellow councillors and staff is frankly quite embarrassing… the constant belittling, denigrating and ridiculing of other councillors must cease,” she said.
But the bullying and ridicule has not stopped, said Cr Kiel, questioning the value of the council’s code of conduct in failing to address the situation.
She said she felt better able to serve the community as a member of local organisations outside council.
“I believe that if I was to continue on as a councillor that it would adversely impact my health and wellbeing.”
Cr Kiel broke then down when she said she felt she had let the people of this shire down by resigning and also the Mayor Cr Lorraine Brunt, but through sobs, she said she hoped everyone would respect her decision.
Clearly, by the body language of some councillors around the table (see live streaming September 26, 2018 at 1:18:48) not all councillors did respect the decision.
On the ABC Gippsland Facebook page, an interested person made the following observation:
Deb Harris: “If you watch the video I suspect the body language of the Crs tells all. Some were fully attentive facing the speaker, others totally disinterested, and one stood out as being visibly disrespectful.”
Cr McEwen blamed
Mrs Kiel went on to provide further explanation for her decision in an interview with WIN TV during the week when she revealed that an email sent to her private email account, from a fellow councillor’s private email while she was holidaying overseas last month, was the last straw.
It is understood that the email was from Cr Andrew McEwen, warning Cr Kiel that she risked a formal Code of Conduct complaint over allegations she made at the August 22, 2018 council meeting that Cr McEwen was the highest-spending councillor.
At that meeting Cr Kiel drew attention to the fact that both Cr Argento and Cr Rich had run up travel costs of almost $7500 each, despite the fact that Cr Argento was mayor for part of the time, while “Cr McEwen is out at $9500 for mileage which is a significant amount of money”.
“And unlike the previous statements by councillors that the higher expenditure means they were a more productive councillor, some of us councillors choose to be more aware of the financial burden that each one of those expenditure requests means to our ratepayers.”
A report on councillor expenditure (July 1, 2017 to June 30, 2018), tabled at the August 22, 2018 council meeting, reveals that Cr McEwen is indeed the highest spending of the seven non-mayoral councillors costing ratepayers a total of $40,914 last financial year, significantly above his yearly allowance of $27,393.
Other non-mayoral councillor totals for the year are as follows: Cr Aaron Brown $33,543, Cr Alyson Skinner $39,814, Cr Jeremy Rich $39,329, Cr Maxine Kiel $33,533, Cr Meg Edwards $37,952 and Cr Don Hill $35,474.
With part of their mayoral allowance included, Cr Ray Argento $58,654 and Cr Lorraine Brunt $72,672, got the biggest share of the $391,885 total expenditure on councillors, which was nonetheless $34,000 below budget for the financial year.
Mrs Kiel’s resignation leaves a casual vacancy on the council which is expected to be filled on Monday, October 22 at 4pm when the Victorian Electoral Commission (VEC) conducts a recount of only Mrs Kiel’s 1385 first preference votes.
On Mrs Kiel’s ‘how to vote’ card, she preferenced Cr Edwards second, followed by unsuccessful candidates Nigel Hutchinson-Brooks third and Jim Fawcett fourth. They would be considered favourites to be offered the vacant seat on council but it’s no certainty.
Asked about their intentions, should they win the recount, both Mr Hutchinson-Brooks and Mr Fawcett said they were undecided.
Any one of the 10 unsuccessful candidates for the Tarwin Valley Ward at the 2016 election is eligible to take the seat; others include Graeme Heath, Philip Murphy, Di Todd, Steve Finlay, Graeme Winkler, Rosemary Cousin, Ben Corcoran and Kim White.
The successful candidate will be given 48 hours to accept or reject the offer.
In the days following Cr Kiel’s departure, she has been overwhelmed with messages of support.
“I found it pretty difficult getting through that last Wednesday, but if anything, I’ve been more emotional about the number of calls of support I’ve received, not just locally, but right across the state.”
The Mayor Cr Lorraine Brunt was bitterly disappointed to see Maxine go but said she fully understood and supported her reasons for doing so.
“I am disappointed that I will no longer be working alongside such a diligent and capable community representative, but I understand and respect the decision she has made,” Cr Brunt said.
“No one could have anticipated the challenges inherent in being part of this Council group.
“While Cr Kiel was concerned that she was letting down me and the community, nothing could be further from the truth. She did her best in trying circumstances. She can hold her head high and be proud of her achievements,” she said
“She’s a woman of remarkable integrity and she will be missed.”