The Beagle Editor, Readers of the Beagle opinion pages following the Codes of Conduct complaints raised against Council staff and Councillors will no doubt be interested to read that there are similar misgivings about who is watching the "watchdogs" put in place to keep an eye on councils, its public servants and the way they go about their business, ensuring they comply with various acts and guidelines. on the road to ruin …
The Bega Valley Shire Residents & Ratepayers Association (BVSRRA) believes that the greatest threat to the health of our democracy is a widespread loss of trust on the part of the populace in government, whether it be elected politicians, appointed public officials & even those entrusted with the responsibility of ensuring that public officials act in accordance with the law in carrying-out their responsibilities.
It is a sad indictment of our times that, according to the latest research, only 35% of Australians believe that they can trust the government to do what is right most of the time.
Whether it is our growing acceptance that public officials will blatantly lie to us at will, place their own self-interest or that of their party ahead of the public interest, undermine, by-pass or ignore due process & good governance in pursuit of their own ends, conceal their dubious activities from the public gaze; or our sense of helplessness in the face of such behaviour, the reality is that all of these things act to corrode public trust in government & confidence in the real strength of our democracy, which ultimately speaks to our sense of security & individual & collective well-being.
In the case of local government, it appears that the greatest areas of community concern or contention seem to be in planning & development decisions, community engagement & consultation (or more often the lack thereof), openness & transparency around decision-making, adequate standards of governance & concerns around integrity.
An area of particular concern (both for members of the community & public officials) involves the operation/management of council’s Code of Conduct complaints process: undoubtedly in part due to its complexity, lack of openness & transparency, the lack of a meaningful public appeal mechanism & strong doubts around the integrity of the process & its management.
Typically councils will refer Code of Conduct complaints to “independent Reviewers”, who have been appointed to the council’s Panel of Independent Reviewers. Independent Reviewers are required to meet the eligibility & selection criteria specified in Part 3 of the Procedures for the Administration of the Model Code of Conduct for Local Councils in NSW. These criteria are supposedly intended to ensure that conduct reviewers are independent of the council that appointed them & have the necessary skills, knowledge & experience to undertake their role effectively & appropriately.
A critical requirement of Independent Reviewers is that they are & are seen to be independent, with Section 6.4(b) of the procedures making it clear that a conduct reviewer must not accept the referral of a Code of Conduct complaint where “a reasonable apprehension of bias arises in relation to their consideration of the matter”, while clause 6.6 clearly states that “a reasonable apprehension of bias arises where a fair-minded observer might reasonably apprehend that the conduct reviewer might not bring an impartial & unprejudiced mind to the matter referred to the conduct reviewer”.
It was against this backdrop that the BVSRRA was made aware of a recent complaint made to the Office of Local Government (OLG) concerning a number of matters involving Eurobodalla Shire Council (ESC), including seemingly inappropriate dealings by ESC with a complaint reviewer.
It was against this backdrop that the BVSRRA was made aware of a recent complaint made to the Office of Local Government (OLG) concerning a number of matters involving Eurobodalla Shire Council (ESC), including seemingly inappropriate dealings by ESC with a complaint reviewer. Evidence suggesting an inappropriate interaction between an Independent Reviewer & an ESC official in respect of a Code of Conduct complaint made by an elected Councillor, was identified from documents supplied by the OLG in response to a GIPA Application involving another matter. The interaction suggests that the Independent Reviewer & the ESC official had consulted one another on the content of the Independent Reviewer’s draft report on the Code of Conduct complaint, thereby suggesting that the Independent Reviewer was obviously not acting in an impartial & unprejudiced manner. The complainant’s concerns were further aroused by the behaviour of the OLG, who responded by suggesting that the complaint should be referred to ESC, the subject of its complaint. In the meantime, the BVSRRA’s concerns were directly aroused when it realised that the same Independent Reviewer had been involved in reviewing an earlier Code of Conduct complaint that it had made regarding the behaviour of a Councillor with Bega Valley Shire Council (BVSC). In that instance, the Independent Reviewer had rejected the BVSRRA’s complaint. The BVSRRA was so incensed by the Independent Reviewer’s partisan report, that it pursued its complaint with the OLG, requesting a review of the decision. The OLG declined its request. The BVSRRA’s concerns had been heightened when it was made aware of another Code of Conduct complaint decision made by the same Independent Reviewer, which had produced the same outcome when referred to the OLG. According to BVSC, its Panel of Independent Reviewers has 10 members, including the Independent Reviewer referred to in this report. This month, BVSC confirmed that it had received nine Code of Conduct complaints over the past 18 months, two of which had been referred to the OLG, while six had been referred to an Independent Reviewer for investigation. BVSC also confirmed that all six of those complaints had been referred to the same Independent Reviewer referred to in this report, while none had been referred to any of the other nine Independent Reviewers who are members of the council’s Panel of Reviewers. Moreover, the BVSRRA now has strong reasons to believe that the Independent Reviewer may have been used exclusively to investigate ESC Code of Conduct complaints in recent years. The BVSRRA believes that the above facts act to suggest the Independent Reviewer referred to in this report may not be “independent” at all. The fact that the overwhelming bulk of Code of Conduct complaints received by both BVSC & ESC have been referred to the same reviewer suggests a convenience & closeness of association between the reviewer & both councils, which in turn creates a strong impression that the reviewer’s behaviour may not have been impartial & unprejudiced. The highly questionable behaviour of the reviewer in the case of the ESC Code of Conduct complaint, coupled with the BVSRRA’s concerns from its own direct experience, suggests than the NSW Government should mount an independent inquiry into the matters raised in this report, including a review of past decisions made by the reviewer. The BVSRRA believes that by virtue of its consistent failure to address genuine complaints made by residents & ratepayers from both the Eurobodalla Shire & the Bega Valley Shire, the OLG should be disqualified from any direct involvement in such an inquiry. Indeed, the BVSRRA believes that the behaviour of the OLG in not responding to the concerns of the community should itself be a subject of the suggested inquiry. Should the NSW Government choose to ignore this recommendation, then the BVSRRA believes that at the very least the Independent Reviewer should be removed from NSW Panels of Review, lest its standing in the eyes of the NSW electorate will suffer enormous damage in the lead-up to the next state election. John Richardson Secretary/Treasurer Bega Valley Shire Residents & Ratepayers Association
This Media Release is available here…
Bega Valley Shire Residents & Ratepayers Association
Editor: some music to sooth you after reading the above....