IN THE most dramatic day in the South Gippsland Shire Council’s 23-year history last Wednesday, June 19, the eight remaining members of the council were sacked by the State Government.
They will be replaced by an interim administrator, Ms Julie Eisenbise (to be sworn in today), and later three commissioners who will act as the council until elections in October 2021, a full year after local government elections are held in most other municipalities around the state.
This Wednesday’s council meeting, featuring consideration of the annual budget, will go ahead at 2pm as advertised.
Gone are Ray Argento, Rosemary Cousin, Steve Finlay, Don Hill, Frank Hirst, Andrew McEwen, Matthew Sherry and Alyson Skinner.
They follow former councillor Aaron Brown, who resigned on Wednesday, June 12, and five others including Maxine Kiel, Meg Edwards, Lorraine Brunt, James Fawcett and Jeremy Rich who have all resigned since September last year, most of them citing bullying and poor governance.
Cr Rich resigned after being charged with several serious drug offences following a police raid at his family’s Walkerville property on April 15 this year.
As they were shown the door last week, they were showered with condemnation; Shadow Minister for Local Government Tim Smith referring to “complete dysfunction” and “yet another litany of clown hall behaviours that ratepayers around Victoria are absolutely sick to death of”.
Gippsland South MP Danny O’Brien likened the denials of sacked mayor Don Hill to those of “Comical Ali” during the Iraq War.
“For the mayor to be continually saying that there was not a problem brought to mind the man who was referred to as Comical Ali in the Iraq War who, as the allied forces were literally at the gates of Baghdad, was still saying a great victory was at hand. The mayor’s comments were totally implausible and clearly in denial,” Mr O’Brien said in Parliament last week.
The comments sparked five days of vitriol on Mr O’Brien’s Facebook page as former Councillor Hill played out his grievances with Mr O’Brien in public.
The Local Government (South Gippsland Shire Council) Bill 2019, by which the democratically elected council was dismissed last week, passed swiftly through both Houses of Parliament within a day, clearing the way for the council’s official dismissal at midnight on Friday, June 21, after the bill received Royal Assent.
News that the State Government had moved against the strife-torn council forced the last-minute cancellation of a scheduled Public Presentation session in Leongatha last Wednesday, but councillors continued with their own morning briefing session, in the Michael Place Complex, while the story broke around them.
During a morning of turmoil, leaders of the Leongatha Business Association, Brenton Williams and Anthony Walls, claim they were rudely ejected from the council chambers by sacked mayor Don Hill, who also slammed the door on a Nine Gippsland TV news crew which was quickly on the scene.
Order was restored mid-morning when Cr Hill agreed to front the cameras with his first, angry words after the Minister for Local Government, Adem Somyurek’s announcement.
“The Monitor’s Report and the Commission of Inquiry both failed to substantiate any bullying allegations that have been made against this council over the last few years of this council. So, the bullying allegations that were made originally what started this whole affair off; unsubstantiated, false,” said Cr Hill.
Asked if council had been treated unfairly by the Minister, Cr Hill said: “Yes I do, and we’ll have more to say about that.”
He turned and went back into the council chambers where the remaining councillors were bunkered down reportedly preparing a public response.
In part, the official response by Cr Hill on behalf of the council reads:
“In light of the recent turn of events and news of Council’s imminent dismissal, I offer this statement on behalf of Council.
“Council believes there has been a breach of natural justice in regard to our dismissal.
“At the heart of the controversy surrounding the South Gippsland Shire , has been a battle for control of the council and its 60 million dollar annual budget.
“Past decisions have seen the majority of councillors supporting funds being spent predominantly on major towns within the shire, with a newly elected Council looking to address funding equality shortfalls in growing smaller towns, and farming communities, had incensed past councillors.
“These decisions, and their failure to be re-elected, have fuelled a smear and mudslinging campaign that goes straight to the top of Local Government in order to overthrow the currently elected Council.
“Aided by self interest groups it is quite apparent these past councillors intend to return once this Council is dismissed in order to restrict growth within the shire…”
Cr Hill expanded on his comments when speaking to the Sentinel-Times later claiming a “conspiracy of 20 people” in the local community had been working together since the 2016 elections to bring the council down.
He later named Leongatha Business Association president and vice president Brenton Williams and Anthony Walls; former councillors James Fawcett, Nigel Hutchinson-Brooks and James Forbes; former mayor Lorraine Brunt; organisers of the Leongatha public meeting including Glenn Wright, and members of the local media including Michael Giles among the conspirators.
“There’s 27,000 voters out there,” he said.
“That’s what I’ve been told after the last election. It was communicated to me that they were forming a group and that it was involving members of the Chamber, the press and others.
“You know who they are. They’re in your paper,” Cr Hill said.
He went on to say the Minister had to be accountable for what he had allowed to happen.
“This is unprecedented. All the other councils who have been suspended or who have had monitors appointed had worse things going on than us and have not been suspended. We do not get anywhere near them and yet we have now been removed from office. That means any council can be removed from office if there is enough of a campaign from people claiming bullying, false allegations, making enough fuss and an elected council can be thrown out with no cause. And justified by a report that is not done with natural justice in mind.”
Cr Hill went on to say that neither the Municipal Monitor’s report, nor the report from the Commission of Inquiry, which were both tabled in State Parliament last Wednesday, substantiated any of the bullying allegations which started the whole affair.
He was also critical of the State Government for failing to table, as promised, the shire’s response to the monitor’s report.
Cr Hill continued his denials after the opening of the $11 million Long Jetty at Port Welshpool last Friday, where his attendance created an awkward situation for organisers, as Cr Hill was still officially mayor at the time, with Royal Assent not taking effect until 12 midnight on Friday night.
Cr Hill was offered no part in the official opening and was largely ignored on the day. Crs Andrew McEwen and Frank Hirst also attended. All three will be entitled to make claims on the ratepayers for doing so through their councillor expense accounts.
In moving the bill last Wednesday morning, former Local Government Minister Marlene Kairouz referred to “deep-seated, pervasive and continuing governance failures” at South Gippsland.
The Minister, Adem Somyurek, who spoke in the Legislative Council later in the day, quoted from the Commission of Inquiry report, tabled in State Parliament earlier, which “found a high level of discord, conflict and tension between the councillors had negatively impacted on the council’s performance, the councillors’ decision-making, councillor-staff relationships and council’s reputation.”