Cr Michael Whelan says enough is enough.


By Michael Giles

WHETHER it’s a huge turbine going up in your neighbourhood, delays with an Inverloch footpath, high rates, dusty roads, smelly bins, drains that flood or frustrating problems with planning permits…

There’s certainly scope for ratepayers to get hot-under-the-collar with the local shire.

But some people have been taking it too far, way too far in their dealings with the Bass Coast Shire Council, including threatening violence to staff and councillors.

And, at the initiative of Cr Michael Whelan, the council has a chance to put a stop to it this week.

He’s proposing the adoption of an ‘Unreasonable Customer Conduct Policy’ at Wednesday’s council meeting and here’s why:

“Most of our customers act reasonably and responsibly in their interactions with us, even when they are experiencing high levels of distress, frustration and anger about their complaint,” said Cr Whelan this week.

“But in a very small number of cases some customers behave in ways that are inappropriate and unacceptable despite our best efforts to help them.

“They are aggressive and or verbally abusive towards our people.

“They threaten harm and violence, bombard our offices with unnecessary and excessive phone calls and emails, make inappropriate demands on our time and our resources and refuse to accept our decisions and recommendations in relation to their complaints.

“They may also use social media platforms to damage Council’s reputation and brand.”

Such behaviour is not on, according to Bass Coast Ratepayers and Residents Association President Andrew Marston, but he’s concerned that council doesn’t reduce its engagement with the general community for the behaviour of a few.

“Everyone needs to engage with council in a courteous and respectful manner no matter what the situation, but one of my concerns is that the policy seems to be contrary to good and thorough community engagement.

“I worked in sales and there were always difficult customers but in the private sector you can’t tell people to nick off. I’d be concerned if they decided they’re not going to engage with certain groups and individuals,” Marston said.

Cr Whelan intends moving the following motion:

“That Council, through the CEO, develop an Unreasonable Customer Conduct Policy that will be available on our website. The objective of this policy is to provide our customers, employees, councillors and contractors with a framework within which Bass Coast Shire Council will manage unreasonable conduct by customers.”

Cr Whelan said council was committed to being accessible and responsive to all customers who approached Council with requests for information or complaints but would not tolerate abuse or threats.

As well as working efficiently and effectively, council had a responsibility for “the health, safety and security of our people”.

“When customers behave unreasonably in their dealings with us, their conduct can significantly affect our success. As a result, we need to take proactive and decisive action to manage any customer conduct that negatively and unreasonably affects us,” he said by way of explanation in the agenda for this Wednesday’s council meeting.

“This unreasonable conduct includes: Unreasonable persistence, unreasonable demands, unreasonable lack of cooperation, unreasonable arguments, and unreasonable behaviour.

“An ‘Unreasonable Customer Conduct Policy’ would clearly set out behaviour that Council considers unreasonable, the protective actions that could be put in place and would support Council to provide a safe workplace,” comments included from shire officers.

Shire CEO Ali Wastie underscored Cr Whelan’s point that only a very small number of local residents were causing these sorts of problems for council.

“It’s not just an excessive amount of emails, up to 1000 and 480 emails as an example across a year, but also the incidents of abuse and threats of personal violence against our staff and councillors.

“It’s an occupational health and safety issue which many councils have already addressed.

“We will however endeavour to always provide one point of contact in these cases,” Ms Wastie said, acknowledging that there may be some mental health issues involved, another reason while a specific policy was required.

South Gippsland Shire

South Gippsland Shire Council Chief Executive Officer, Kerryn Ellis, said her shire is preparing something similar:

“Council is currently developing an Unreasonable Behaviours and Demands Policy which is on schedule to be finalised next month. It is aimed at ensuring the safety, health and wellbeing of Council staff, Councillors and Council representatives,” Ms Ellis said.

“As the provision of a high standard of service to our community is a key role and commitment of Council, we expect community members to similarly treat our staff with respect and dignity to enable us to meet this commitment. Behaviours that compromise the safety of staff, Councillors or community members are not tolerated.”

Among those council which already have an Unreasonable Customer Conduct Policy include Casey, Boroondara, Frankston, Latrobe City, Mornington Peninsula, Glen Eira, Mildura, Moreland and Surf Coast.

Community objection

Meanwhile, former Bass Coast ratepayers’ president, Kevin Griffin, a local government commentator in his own right now, has raised the red flag.

In a letter to the council, copied to the local media, he has warned councillors to think long and hard before agreeing to such a policy.

“I write to you all now to express my objection to Michael’s Notice of Motion 231/21 – Unreasonable Customer Conduct Policy – which is on the agenda for this week’s Council meeting,” Mr Griffin has written.

“I consider this matter to be of high importance to community members, and for this reason I have included our local media representatives on this communication in case they may feel this subject to be of interest to their readers.

“In his NOM Michael makes unsubstantiated assertions, none of which he has as yet corroborated. It is incumbent upon him to offer supporting evidence if his NOM is to be taken seriously when introduced at the meeting.

I have grave concern that should Councillors agree to introduce such a policy, then it might be used in an unreasonable manner in effort to stifle legitimate criticism of Bass Coast Shire Council and its Councillors.

“I contend that Michaels approach to this issue is completely flawed. For example, does Michael really believe that it is unreasonable for a community member not to accept Council decisions and recommendations in relation to complaints?  That is an absurd proposition, and I would be stating as much if I were a sitting Councillor.”

See letter attached: