City of Greater Bendigo chief executive officer Craig Niemann has welcomed the state government’s announcement it will not disqualify councillor Elise Chapman.
“The city welcomes the state government’s decision,” Mr Niemann said.
“In Cr Chapman’s case, she signed the code of conduct as requested and in the required timeframe.
Also, in regards to this line from the premier:
"Councillors will still be required to review their code of conduct within four weeks of the October 22 council elections and agree to abide by it."
Mr Niemann said councillors voted in at the October elections would have a month to agree to and sign a revised code of conduct.
“If any current councillors are re-elected they will need to re-sign the code of conduct, as it is a new council term,” he said.
“Whatever process is determined by the state government, it will need to be followed by the new council.
“The council has reviewed the code of conduct and as such now has a revised document.
“This will be put before the new council and it will have an opportunity to amend it if it considers appropriate.”
UPDATE 1.30pm: Victorian Local Governance Association president Sebastian Klein has welcomed the state government’s announcement it will not disqualify more than 100 councillors – including Bendigo councillor Elise Chapman.
“We welcome the State Government’s announcement,” Cr Klein said.
“This is the right decision. It is the common sense approach that the VLGA has asked for.
We are now working with state parliamentarians to see this amendment pass through the parliament.”
However, anger within the local government sector around its treatment remains palpable.
It is understood the VLGA believes the state government is trying to deflect attention back on to councils and away from the wording of its legislation.
The Andrews government has said it will reprieve 107 councillors – including Bendigo councillor Elise Chapman – currently facing disqualification.
The state government issued a statement saying it would amend the Local Government Act as a result of what it described as administrative errors made by a number of councils across Victoria.
“This amendment follows errors made by councils that would have seen 107 councillors – including 13 entire councils – disqualified and then dismissed on 1 September for not agreeing to abide by their own code of conduct,” the statement reads.
Acting Minister for Local Government Richard Wynne said he wanted to see council’s abiding by the code of conduct but to ensure ratepayers did not suffer.
“Our ultimate consideration here is ensuring residents don’t have to pay for the administrative mistakes made by their local councils,” the acting minister said.
“The councils have admitted themselves to gross incompetence in not meeting this simple requirement, and they have asked the government for a solution to ensure ratepayers don’t suffer as a result of these mistakes.
“Communities should be able to rely on their elected councillors to behave with the utmost integrity and professionalism at all times, so it’s important they abide by codes of conduct that reflect these values.”
The government’s statement said councils had been first notified of the new requirement at the end of 2015.
“Councils received links to a comprehensive guide to the changes available online, with a further two hard copies also mailed to each council,” the statement read.
“Councils were again notified in March this year of the requirement.
“Councillors will still be required to review their code of conduct within four weeks of the October 22 council elections and agree to abide by it.
“However, the current group of councillors will not be disqualified as a result of their errors.”
The deadline called for councillors to sign their code of conduct within one month from the point their council adopted new code.
The requirement for new codes of conduct was part of a suite of new laws passed by the parliament in October last year to strengthen council governance and reduce councillor misconduct.
The laws ensure that no councillor is able to avoid disciplinary action for breaching their council’s code of conduct.
The City of Greater Bendigo’s chief executive officer has said he was frustrated about the potential disqualification a Bendigo councillor which he described as a case of “over-administration”.
Craig Niemann said his understanding was that the Local Government Investigations and Compliance Inspectorate has said councillor Elise Chapman could be disqualified because she did not sign a revised code of conduct in his presence.
The CEO said this was required by the act – but said what had occurred was not “a hanging offence”.
“It’s over-administration, I would have thought it’s being too prescriptive of the act,” Mr Niemann said.
“Council had a special meeting on June 15 where council unanimously adopted the code of conduct and eight of the nine councillors signed off on it right there and then.
“Cr Chapman didn't and that's her right, she had a month to sign it.”
Mr Niemann said the letters V.C which Cr Chapman signed in front of her signature were a matter for her to explain and did not comment on whether it was a factor in the inspectorate’s decision.
Cr Chapman has refused on several occasions to explain to the Bendigo Advertiser why she wrote the letters V.C. in front of her signature despite answering other questions.
Instead the Mr Niemann focused on the fact Cr Chapman did sign the document within the required time-frame.
“She came in on July 11 and did sign it [but] it wasn’t in my presence – I was actually away at the time – and the acting CEO, it wasn't in her presence either.
“So it’s a very fine piece of legislation that says that it should be signed in the presence of a CEO.
“I trust the councillors to sign it – if that’s their signature, that’s their signature.
“The intention was to get every councillor to sign the code of conduct within a period and that's been delivered here.
“It happened at Campaspe, as I understand it, they did it very early and it wasn’t signed in front of the CEO.
“Is that a hanging offence?
Premier’s possible reprieve?
It appears Premier Daniel Andrews also doesn’t believe Campaspe Shire councillors have committed a hanging offence – the premier said this morning 13 councils which failed to correctly sign the revised code of conduct would be offered a reprieve.
"Councils, a number of them, have failed to comply with the law," Premier Daniel Andrews said at a press conference.
"Councils have written to us and said 'look we have stuffed this up, can you change the law, can you help us out here'... And in the interest of rate payers that is exactly what the government will do."
Mr Andrews said councils had admitted their mistake and a further announcement from a minister would be made soon.
However it remains unclear whether Cr Chapman will be among those offered a reprieve.
Acting Minister for Local Government Richard Wynne has not yet confirmed Cr Chapman will be included among those offered a reprieve.
The acting minister did say the government would consider the report from the inspectorate’s chief municipal officer which called for the disqualification as well as correspondence from councils regarding the issue to ensure ratepayers “do not suffer as a result of council administrative errors”.
"Our priority remains lifting standards of governance and the conduct of councillors in local governments across Victoria,” Mr Wynne said.
"We are greatly concerned that councils failed to meet this requirement, despite being aware of it since last year and being notified on multiple occasions."
Frustration over lack of clarity
An inspectorate spokesperson has declined to comment on the specific reasons why individual councillors faced disqualification saying it was a matter for the acting minister.
The City of Greater Bendigo CEO described the lack of clarity as frustrating.
“It is really frustrating when you don't get to see the detail when it impacts directly on councillors and councils – I would have thought they’d be very clear that ‘this is what we are presenting to the minister.
“At the end of the day, it’s the minister’s call, that’s the outcome of this.”
Mayor Rod Fyffe also said he would not be involving himself in the matter.
“We need to follow whatever the minister says because, at the end of the day, it is their act and we have to comply with it,” Cr Fyffe said.
What the Local Government Investigations and Compliance Inspectorate said
An earlier statement from the Local Government Investigations and Compliance Inspectorate chief municipal inspector David Wolf said the inspectorate has advised the Victorian Government of the findings and the next steps would “be a matter for consideration”.
“It was important that we completed this work well before the 1 September deadline as failure of councillors to comply with the code of conduct requirements as of this date results in disqualification,” Mr Wolf said.
“The inspectorate found that 13 councils have not complied with the requirements and those councillors and councils, under the current legislation, will be disqualified as of 1 September 2016.
“Those councils will require administrators to be appointed for a seven week period until the 2016 general council elections are decided.
“In addition, nine individual councillors from across Victoria have not met the requirements and will be disqualified as of 1 September 2016.
“In total, 107 councillors will be disqualified.”