Bendigo council says it will draw line under councillor disputes

Related: The legacy of a council which spent big, delivered on infrastructure and was rocked by disputes

UPDATE 5.40pm

Former Bendigo councillor Elise Chapman has said she does not accept an independent finding of misconduct against her, dismissing the findings as “hilarious” and baseless.

Asked if she accepted the findings of misconduct against her, Ms Chapman replied she did not.

“No, they were not based on any evidence,” she said.

In his report the arbiter said Ms Chapman had "failed to demonstrate the leadership and example expected of a councillor by not accepting the majority decision of Council to approve the planning permit for the mosque”.

The former councillor and One Nation senate candidate described this finding as “hilarious”.

“I have always accepted council’s vote. I don't agree with it but I wasn't the one constantly raising it,” she wrote.

Cr Chapman said she had nothing to apologise for and would continue her challenge at a state tribunal to a previous councillor conduct panel’s finding she apologise for a graphic tweet.

UPDATE 2.40pm

A former councillor has rejected an apology from a current councillor regarding disputes between them in the previous council term.

Former councillor Helen Leach has also rejected the findings of misconduct levelled against her. 

Ms Leach described councillor James Williams apology for his “lack of respect” toward her as qualified and one she could not accept. 

“I don't believe justice has been done and if could have taken it further I would have,” Ms Leach said. 

“I don’t accept the apology as it does not address the main issue, which was the bullying.” 

An arbiter’s report into claims of misconduct against Cr Williams and former councillors Leach and Elise Chapman rejected claims Cr Williams had harassed and bullied his former colleagues. 

It upheld findings of misconduct at “the lower end of the scale” relating to his behaviour at a council meeting.  

But although Ms Leach said she would have taken the matter further if she could she had no option but to let it be after not winning re-election in the October poll. 

“There’s no further avenue so the matter has to be over,” Ms Leach said.

“I have to put it behind me.”

Ms Leach said she “completely disagreed” with the findings of misconduct against her.  

Cr Williams declined to comment further for this story.

ORIGINAL STORY

The mayor of Bendigo has said the tabling of a final arbiter’s report which reveals more misconduct from the previous council and an apology from one of her colleague’s will draw a line under the disputes which plagued the city during its last council term.

Mayor Margaret O’Rourke was one of seven new faces elected to the nine person City of Greater Bendigo council in the October local government election as Bendigo voters opted for change after a four-year term which delivered on major projects yet was rocked by internal bickering. 

Four independent councillor conduct panels were held during the period, each of which delivered a finding of misconduct. 

The arbiter’s report has added to that tally, with fresh findings of misconduct against two former councillors and one current councillor. 

The new mayor said she tabling of the report would allow the city to enter the new year with a fresh slate. 

“I want to reassure the community the new council is determined such conduct complaints will be a thing of the past,” Cr O’Rourke said.

“All councillors have signed the code of conduct. There is unanimous agreement that we want to be remembered for what we achieve in the interests of the entire community and not for internal disputes.”

Councillor’s apology for ‘unfortunate and utterly wasteful of council’s time, effort and resources’

One of the two councillors from that term to be re-elected Whipstick ward’s James Williams has apologised for his role in those disputes, describing them as “sad, unfortunate and utterly wasteful of council’s time, effort and resources”.

The acknowledgments come ahead of this council’s second and final meeting of the year in which it will table the final arbiter’s report arising from those councillor conduct matters.

The arbiter’s report addresses three matters involving Cr Williams and former councillors Helen Leach and Elise Chapman.

Cr Williams acknowledged the report and findings of the arbiter and thanked him for his fairness, patience and diligence in dealing with these matters.

“I acknowledge his finding that I had not been respectful to former councillor Leach in my comment to her during a meeting this year,” Cr Williams said. 

“Whilst the arbiter considered this breach at the lower end of the scale, it warranted I apologise to former councillor Leach.

“Although I withdrew the remark at the time, it lacked respect for a fellow councillor and I have apologised.

“This was not the standard of behaviour the greater Bendigo community expects or deserves from its elected representatives.

“I also note the two findings against former councillor Leach and two against former councillor Chapman for breaches of the Code of Conduct.

“As they are no longer councillors, how they respond to these findings is entirely up to them.”

Last month a state tribunal rejected a bid by Ms Chapman to force seven of her former colleagues to appear in court as part of an effort to clear her name following an conduct panel finding of misconduct against her for a graphic tweet.

The Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal also refused Ms Chapman’s request to summons a senior city executive but an application to summons another council staffer was adjourned until December 15.

Cr Williams said the recent council elections and meeting with voters provided had provided a “good opportunity to reflect on the term of the previous council”.

“It is clear to me this period of complaint and counter complaint, mediation and hearings was sad, unfortunate and utterly wasteful of council’s time, effort and resources,” he said. 

“I greatly regret it also distracted from much of the good work that council was doing on a number of fronts.

“It is my hope this report and my apology mark the end of the conduct matters.

“Like my new council colleagues, I am determined this kind of behaviour will not be part of this council and I commit to working together productively, collaboratively and respectfully.

“There is no shortage of important issues facing our community and rural and regional Victoria that we need to address.”