Back in 2012 my husband, Don Hill, decided to run for Council.
He saw that he could make a difference and stand up for ratepayers against an administration that seemed unaccountable with annual rate rises of over 6 per cent p.a.
During the campaign he got to know Andrew McEwen, who seemed to have similar views. They were both elected – just!
Cr McEwen just scraped in by 30 votes and Cr Hill was unopposed. Council was that exciting in those days!
After just a few short months however, these two were making waves by proposing some progressive ideas in many areas of Council business.
This did not sit well with the majority block leader at the time and the two progressives were soon at the receiving end of some rough tactics.
Whilst the two progressives were always in the minority they continued to put forward their ideas to Council and the ratepayers. Council nearly always voted them down.
Key ideas put forward early on in that Council were a 15-year 2 per cent rate rise budget ahead of rate capping and new ideas such as shared services, which council is currently enacting with support of government.
These ideas were also voted down by the old guard until rate capping was introduced. Then, many of the progressive ideas were incorporated into the 15-year budget to achieve compliance with rate capping with no cuts to services.
In all this time I watched as my husband would work late into the night on research and proposals often in collaboration with Cr McEwen and then see those ideas dismissed out of hand by the majority block when he tried to present them. They never gave up.
Despite working full-time teaching and running a 250-acre farm, he managed to visit ratepayers and assist them in their concerns as well as do all that late-night work preparing proposals to give to the councillor group.
In 2015, the heat was really put on when Cr Fawcett organised five other Councillors to call for a code complaint against my husband for daring to inform the ratepayers that Council was proposing to spend $32 million of their funds on a municipal office project without ever having the ratepayers approve that in a budget process.
During 2015 the minority group actually won a vote on an amendment to the rating strategy.
Cr Fawcett strode into the Mayor’s office after the vote and threatened Mrs Harding that she must change her vote or lose out with projects in her area.
She did not buckle under this threat and eventually Cr Fawcett was found guilty and to date has been the only Councillor to be found guilty of misconduct in this Shire.
My husband eventually was acquitted at VCAT in early 2017 of the false charges laid against him by Cr Fawcett, Brunt, and Davies. I believe those false charges were pushed to intimidate and bully my husband with an aimed for guilty verdict to be used to discredit his standing in the 2016 elections.
The battle lines were drawn and both the progressives and the majority block campaigned hard for the 2016 council elections. The progressives promoted a wide range of policy ideas and proposals, the old guard offered up nothing new but scare tactics.
They produced an illegal how to vote card, promulgated negative press about the progressive individuals and their only solution was for a no change council going forward.
The electorate spoke resoundingly and all bar one of the old guard failed dismally in their bids for re-election.
The only one returning just scraped in whilst the two progressives were returned with a large increase in votes. Of the new Councillors, three were independents (Argento, Skinner, Rich), and four (Brunt, Edwards, Brown, and Kiel), were aligned with the old guard Council.
So looking like 4-3-2 split in ideology the new Council began. In theory, the three independents should be able to ensure no block vote survived and the best ideas would win out.
One unsuccessful candidate with tendencies towards the old guard informed my husband that the locals were not happy – Leongatha did not have a representative on Council.
He said that a group was forming comprising elements of the Leongatha Chamber, the local press and others and that he should watch out for the State! My husband thought he was joking at the time.
The new Council chose one of the independents as the Mayor and in that first year, tactics employed were to white-ant the two progressive councillors by telephoning two independents on a daily basis and talking at length on who knows what about how bad those two Councillors were.
The two progressives continued to promote sound ideas in debate but the voting seemed to come down to 6-3 against change.
The second year began with Cr Brunt being elected as Mayor. Council continued 6-3 but over the next six months first one then another independent started to change some of their votes towards the progressive proposals.
Leading up to the third Mayor election it still looked like 6-3 but the resignation of Cr Edwards resulted in a new independent being elected.
With Mr Fawcett also coming back to Council it still looked like 5-4 to the old guard going forward. The Mayor vote now was perhaps a surprise to the old guard but on the day Cr Argento chose to trust in Cr Hill.
Disruption increased after Cr Hill was elected as Mayor as an attempt was made to campaign against the elected Council using anything except a discussion on policies.
Rumours and false statements were run in the press against individual Councillors and Council in general. Although this had been occurring over the time since the election it began to get more aggressive.
Two Councillors then chose to fall on their own swords after the vote by Council to advertise the CEO position. They made outrageous unsubstantiated claims as they departed and took part in a public political rally to speak against the elected council and request that it be removed by the State Government.
The local Chamber of Commerce even declared itself as a political party!
Who organised the public political rally? Elements of the Leongatha Chamber, the Star Newspaper and others.
From where I sit, this looked like an orchestrated campaign over the last three years by a group of Leongatha centric individuals who have plain and simply lost the will of the electorate and rather than adapt to change or propose policies they just chose to disrupt, undermine and pull down.
If they could not run the Shire they wouldn’t allow others to unless they had the same views.
If this tactic were successful it could legitimately be called a coup. In future, if a group lost an election, rather than wait to the next one and attempt to produce actual policies, just cause disruption with false allegations and attempt to have the decision overturned by the State!
These last few months have been tough on all the remaining councillors. Being accused of unsubstantiated, nasty, untruthful behaviours is hard to hear when they are standing up to give their time and efforts to improve the outcomes for the Shire.
It seems to me as well that what they have been accused of is exactly how the others have been behaving themselves over the years.
Now that the last two of the old guard have left, the new Council have the opportunity to implement sensible much overdue change in this community.
They now have 18 months to show the community what they can do. The community needs to pay attention because the old guard will return in 2020 and throwing their non-policy driven agenda of defame and besmirch, will attempt to get a new council that returns to the old ways.
If that happens the community will have lost some free thinkers and be back with rubber stampers just approving what the administration supplies them each month.
Barbara Hill, Wild Dog Valley.