THE Victorian Local Government Inspectorate, an independent agency supposed to ensure Victorian councils follow the Local Government Act 2020, has itself become embroiled in a conspiracy to affect the outcome of the Bass Coast Shire Council elections.
The issue relates to the timing of a public statement exonerating Cr Les Larke, a candidate in the Bass Coast Council elections.
The statement, quoting Acting Chief Municipal Inspector, Dr John Lynch, which advised that the Inspectorate had concluded its investigation into alleged corruption involving Cr Larke, said the councillor had no case to answer.
“The investigation did not find evidence that Cr Larke had misused his position in breach of section 76D (2) of the Act. The Inspectorate will take no further action in this matter,” Dr Lynch said.
However, while the statement was made public at 9.40am on Wednesday and first sent to Cr Larke on Tuesday evening this week at 4:59:58pm by a VLGI administration officer, the decision was actually made five days earlier, on Friday, October 9, under the signature of Investigations Manager, Ross Millard.
Instead of releasing the investigation outcome on the Friday, just as voting packs were arriving in homes right across Bass Coast, the Inspectorate did not issue its statement publicly until the Wednesday – why the wait?
The Sentinel-Times put the question to the Inspectorate on Wednesday morning.
By way of explanation, Dr Lynch said:
“The Inspectorate has to follow due process when notifying complainants and other parties of an investigation outcome.
“The Inspectorate manages a significant workload of enquiries and complaints for all 79 Victorian councils. Given our responsibility for electoral matters, priority is being given to resolving matters related to elections at 76 councils.
“This particular matter was not related to the 2020 election.”
But in the mind of Cr Larke, the man accused by his fellow councillors of allegedly offering significant inducements to secure their votes in the mayoral race at a ‘councillor only’ meeting on October 31, 2018, the “conspiracy” to nobble his campaign is very much an electoral issue.
“The release of the Inspectorate’s decision is a matter for the Inspectorate. I’m just getting on with it now,” said Cr Larke.
But instead of voters being in possession of that information when their voting packs arrived last week, many may have already voted before finding out Cr Larke doesn’t have a case to answer.
This has forced Cr Larke into a rear-guard action, trying to advise as many people as possible, that he has been cleared by the Inspectorate, a task made all the more difficult by the COVID-19 restrictions.
“I’m mainly talking to people on the phone, sending messages or emails,” Cr Larke said today.
It hasn’t been helped by the letterbox distribution of a copy of an article from The Age newspaper, on Saturday, September 26, in which the allegations of supposed wrongdoing were detailed.
The Age has since carried an article saying Cr Larke has been cleared but they have highlighted a massive escalation in the original allegation, supported by leaked council emails, that Cr Larke had offered $1 million of his own money per ward for projects, claiming he offered $5 million per ward, that is, $15 million in total.
The $15 million figure is drawn from the statement by the Local Government Inspectorate: “The complaint alleges that Cr Larke offered each ward $5 million in exchange for the vote as mayor”.
But Cr Larke told the Sentinel-Times today that the Inspectorate didn’t put a figure to him during an interview, but he agreed claims that he offered $15 million were farcical.
The pamphlet of the earlier Age article has been circulated around the Bunurong Ward, in Inverloch and Wonthaggi, in recent days.
Described as a Maserati-driving multi-millionaire, the article claimed Cr Larke was prepared to spend up to $5 million of his own money across three wards in order to secure the support of a majority of councillors in the vote for mayor.
This has somehow become $15 million.
Cr Larke denies the claim, telling the Sentinel-Times this week it was clearly a joke at the time, but not seen as such by several of the councillors in attendance at the councillor-only session; including Crs Rothfield, Tessari, Fullarton, Ellis and Cr Larke himself, with Cr Kent reportedly outside the room on October 31, 2018.
The Inspectorate says there’s no evidence to support the claims.
“A complainant alleged that Cr Larke attempted to bribe fellow councillors in order to secure nomination as mayor for Bass Coast Shire Council in breach of section 76D of the Local Government Act 1989. This occurred at the councillor-only meeting held on October 31, 2018.
“The investigation did not find evidence that Cr Larke had misused his position…”
As well as attempting to make the voters aware of the decision by the Inspectorate, Cr Larke has also tried to put a stop to the negative letterbox campaign, contacting the other candidates in Bunurong to gauge their level of involvement.
All have denied any knowledge of the letterbox campaign.
So, who is delivering copies of the Age article and why?