Related: Chapman’s VCAT hearing set for 2016
A state tribunal has allowed the City of Greater Bendigo to take the lead role against one of its councillors, who is challenging an order she apologise for a graphic tweet linking female genital mutilation to the proposed Bendigo mosque.
The Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal ruled today the council had a stake in upholding that finding.
Today’s ruling means the long-running battle between the councillors is one step closer to a resolution, with the case now likely to be heard and a final ruling issued by June.
Cr Chapman is challenging an independent councillor conduct panel’s decision in August which ordered she apologise for the tweet she wrote last February.
Related: Chapman ordered to apologise
“The issue as to whether you are a councillor 24-7 or whether you are a part-time councillor and a part-time citizen is an issue [on which] we take the view – as the panel did – that you are always a councillor and you have to be responsible at all times,”Councillor Peter Cox
Seven of her nine council colleagues who referred Cr Chapman to the panel are listed as respondents in the case.
The Greater Bendigo City Council was seeking to join them as the lead respondent in today’s directions hearing – a preliminary hearing which lays the groundwork for the case to proceed.
The lawyer representing Cr Chapman tried to prevent the move, arguing the VCAT review of the panel’s finding risked becoming a “political charade”.
Lawyer Mark Bartley said the issue at stake was whether his client was acting in her role as a councillor or as a private citizen when she issued the tweet.
“The matters in this case are of a subjective nature and it's the councillors who – in their capacity as councillors, but none-the-less in a personal capacity – brought the action,” Mr Butler said.
“They bear the burden of supporting the findings given it was on their evidence that the panel formed its view.”
However VCAT’s presiding member Gerard Butcher ruled in favour of the council, represented by Terry Bramham, which argued that its interest were at stake in the hearing.
“I understand the context is one of a contentious nature and that there is a certain degree of public interest,” Mr Butcher said.
“It seems to me that in relation to the council's interest, whilst the council is a corporate entity, it represents the community at large and as such that plays in favour of it having an interest in the proceedings.”
Councillors Peter Cox, Rod Campbell, Rod Fyffe, Barry Lyons, Lisa Ruffell, Mark Weragoda and James Williams all voted to refer the matter to a conduct panel and were listed as individual respondents in the hearing. Councillor Helen Leach voted against referring the matter on and is not involved in the case.
Cr Cox and Cr Williams represented their seven colleagues at today’s hearing via teleconference.
Cr Cox agreed with the applicant’s lawyer that the issue boiled down to whether a councillor’s private conduct could be separate from their conduct as an elected representative.
"We see it as a very significant hearing – it is an issue in the public limelight [and] the code of conduct is a very important document that needs to be maintained,” Cr Cox said.
“The issue as to whether you are a councillor 24-7 or whether you are a part-time councillor and a part-time citizen is an issue [on which] we take the view – as the panel did – that you are always a councillor and you have to be responsible at all times,” Cr Cox said.
Cr Chapman did not make an appearance.
The two parties will now set a date for proceedings to continue with the case likely to be heard – and resolved one way or the other – within three months.