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  • Writer's pictureThe Beagle

Is it time for Eurobodalla Council to establish an Internal Ombudsman

Anyone attempting to make a complaint against Eurobodalla Council staff or councillors discovers that the process is complex, secretive and in the end frustrating and disappointing with little if any consequence. The previous five year term of Council revealed major failings in their willingness to be open and transparent on a range of matters. Formal requests for information were generally met with reluctance, baseless refusals or bureaucratic lethargy. Even when a request was made under the Government Provision of Information Act (GIPA Act) to a third party such as NSW Sport the Council sought to block access to information, only to be told to pull its head in.

Anecdote after anecdote has revealed of a mindset that Council seemed to have to want to give as little information out as possible about its day to day operations.

Occasionally Council has been challenged and have been found wanting. More often than not the default appears to see Council "legal up" with ratepayer money to contest the uncontestable.

The anecdote that follows is about a ratepayer who dared to say NO to paying a $360 fee and Council choosing to take it through "the courts" paying in total $20,500 in costs that included 80 hours of staff time. In early February 2022 the NSW Administrative Appeal Tribunal (NCAT) handed down their findings about Eurobodalla Shire Council’s processing and handling of another request for information under the Government Provision of Information Act (GIPA Act).

A ratepayer seeking information about their water account resulted in Council being found to have misused the provisions of the GIPA Act with respect to obtaining an extension of time to process the application, and applying a gross misinterpretation of the meaning of ‘personal information’.

The consequences? None to date.

Then there was the time a staff member was found using Council's property register to find out the name of his landlord so that he could ring the landlord directly and suggest that the real estate agent managing the landlord's rental could be dumped. This is a violation of our data. Consequences? Unknown but the council officer remained employed. There have been many accounts of Council refusing to provide information based on "legal privilege" or "commercial in confidence". They have put much effort into blocking GIPA requests to third parties as well, such as NSW SPORT in regard to details of a grant application. Even a basic Code of Conduct complaint comes with a warning that any outcome must be kept in confidence. This means that only those directly involved know of the complaint and the outcome. There have been many Codes of Conduct over the past five years against the General Manager, staff and councillors. But no-one knows the details or the outcome. It is all kept behind closed doors. Government News reports: A NSW council has established an Internal Ombudsman to investigate complaints against staff, contractors, consultants and volunteers.

In comes in response to the recommendations from the independent Governance, Human Resources and Statutory Reporting Review of Wingecarribee Shire Council released last year.

Administrator Viv May ordered the review after the dysfunctional council was suspended last year amid bully and harassment claims.

General Manager Lisa Miscamble says the Internal Ombudsman service will improve organisational transparency.

“Complaints that would be investigated include allegations of alleged corrupt conduct, maladministration, serious or substantial waste of public monies and breaches of Council’s Code of Conduct,” she said in a statement.

“The establishment of an Internal Ombudsman is another step towards restoring the community’s trust and confidence in their Council.”

The role will not cover performance management, industrial issues or complaints that are already being investigated by other bodies.

The then local government minister Shelley Hancock suspended council in March 2021 and appointed an administrator, saying she had concerns about its ability to function.

There have since been a number of reports into Council.

Last September Ms Hancock announced a public inquiry into the council headed by Ross Glover.

Hearings resume on May 26.

NOTE: Comments were TRIALED - in the end it failed as humans will be humans and it turned into a pile of merde; only contributed to by just a handful who did little to add to the conversation of the issue at hand. Anyone who would like to contribute an opinion are encouraged to send in a Letter to the Editor where it might be considered for publication

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