Using code of conduct policies to stifle both debate and transparency

Many of our members are reporting their councils’ abuse in establishing Councillor Codes of Conduct. Joe Lenzo, leading RV’s special investigation task force into this matter, is confirming that many councils are using the code of conduct policies to stifle both debate and transparency. The most publicized case is from Monash Council (case 1, case 2).

Joe Lenzo’s reports:

“What it happening is that the block of councillors in power are setting up the code to stop councillors in disagreement from debating issues or bringing issues to the public.  Some of the wording in the codes is so vague and ambiguous that anything a councillor does could be a violation and, here again, give cause to shut down opposing points of view. A couple of good examples:

  • The shire’s draft charter prohibits distribution of material marked “confidential or which by its content could be reasonably considered to be of a confidential nature”.  I mean really, who is to decide this?
  • “An overriding concern ought to be in achieving a balance in the matters that are communicated and strive to achieve an outcome that presents Council as effective, cohesive and competent”.  Even if not true.
  •  The word “accurately” in the Model Code becomes “adequately” in the shire code. “Adequately” rather than “Accurately”!

Why do we need 79 councillor codes of conducts when one will suffice?

Local Government Victoria should write the councillor code of conduct which will insure consistency across councils. It will insure consistency of councillor conduct and stop the bullying tactics of the block in power at the time the code is written.  It would take the politics out of the code.

If councils want to expand on the code to go into more detail about what it means and how it is applied then that would be OK.  But they must be reined in from their current practices.

This concept should be followed in writing officer code of conduct also.

One must wonder if the violations of the code of conduct are actually bad conduct or just rebellion against stupid codes (like putting your hands on top of your head before you can make a motion).

This is just another example of councils abusing their powers to thwart transparency by expanding the rules of confidentially.”

 

 

5 Monash Councillors are saying Money First before Elderly People

Monash Council’s Grab for Cash

 On 29 Oct 2013, Monash councillors voted 5 to 4 to sell off the aged care facilities Monash Gardens and Elizabeth Gardens. A conservative estimated value of sale proceeds is expected between $10m to $20m, if not higher. However, according to Cr Davies, after transaction cost reductions, the net cash return can be half, ie between $5m to under $10m.

The four Councillors who voted against it because:

  • there is no  good financial reason to sell; the financial problems are structural and can be fixed; it is irresponsible to sell during a poor
  • they have a legislative responsibility to listen and support a community who does not want the facilities to be sold,
  • Money and numbers do not tell the story – there is no understanding about the people impacts
  • Not enough solution alternatives have considered to support a well informed decision making.

The five who supported selling all agreed on the basis of:

  • Financial non affordability but failed to quote an exact figure of how much is needed to upgrade/refurnish the facilities – all they can say is “tens of millions”
  • There is no economy of scale because only 165 people are using the facilities
  • There is a professional industry that can best offer aged care  (despite people telling them our residential aged care facilities already enjoy over 20 years history of high standard of the quality of care).

 On the 28 May 2013, Council voted to conduct a review of car parking arrangements in Glen Waverley. Cr Geoff Lake said that “it was an exciting time in Glen Waverley; it was changing rapidly and for the better. Council is finalising the Glen Waverley Activity Centre Master Plan, which would be released for public consultation in the second half of the year. A successful Activity Centre needs its car parking requirements to be managed well. This Activity Centre currently has close to a surplus of car parking, but that situation will not last long”.

On 24 September 2013, Council staff concluded that current arrangement is not currently at capacity and suggest a review in 12 month’s time.

5.1 CAR PARKING : GLEN WAVERLEY ACTIVITY CENTRE

(PP:DIS6, PARK9)

From Council Agenda 24th September

INTRODUCTION

A review of the parking arrangements in the Glen Waverley Activity Centre has been completed. This review included:

  • Traffic surveys to understand the actual utilisation of parking in the centre.
  • A survey of local traders and Council staff to understand the issues associated with relocating parking from the Bogong (multi-deck) parking area to the Euneva East (multi-deck) parking area.

The parking surveys demonstrate that there is parking availability in the centre and the current arrangements are adequate based on current usage patterns. Further, the results demonstrate that the Bogong parking area is not currently operating at capacity except in the evenings (after 5 pm).

 Cr Geoff Lake expressed concern that the under capacity condition does not meet future needs and recommended to relocate the Bogong Avenue car-park to the Euneva car park not just based on his concern but support by the Glen Waverley Traders’ Association. Other Councillors disagree and/or view that there are other activity centres that require capital developments, not just Glen Waverley.

 In the same meeting, he also said as the chair of the Glen Waverley Activity Centre Master-planning Steering Committee he supported the $18-$23m proposal and presumed that potential funding would be determined via the Council’s budget process. The development of an integrated library and community hub was a key integral part of the master-plan.

The big question is WHY is Cr Lake proposing to support relocating Bogong Avenue car-park when it is underutilized today ? It is a no brainer that the likely reason is the integrated library and community hub is to be built on the existing car park site.

Ratepayers Victoria also believes that the sale of council aged care facilities is related to the Bogong Ave multilevel deck car park redevelopment proposed by Cr Lake. The reason is that Council has no other cash reserves and is hesitant to hike up rate increases for such large scale new capital works, and the sale has been engineered behind the scene way before 25 June 2013 Council meeting. What Councillors did not expect was the high community backslash, which will still continue despite the 29 Oct  per-orchestrated groupthink decision to sell.

 

Jack Davis

Residents in dark on rates hikes

Extract from the Age, February 21, 2013: Richard Willingham reported:

VICTORIA’S nearly 80 local councils do not properly consider the impact that rates increases have on residents, with ratepayers not afforded transparency on how and why councils set annual rates, the Auditor-General has found.

An Auditor-General’s report tabled in Parliament on Wednesday said the current rating framework lacked ”clarity, detail and direction”.

Victoria has 79 councils that all rely on the revenue generated by property-based rates and charges to provide services to local communities.

The report found that there was a ”limited assurance” that all councils ”systematically and rigorously” considered the information needed to understand the impact of rates proposals on their communities

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”Councils primarily rely on their annual budget development process to engage ratepayers about rating decisions,” the Auditor-General said.

”While they do respond to ratepayer submissions as part of this process, they do not always adequately explain how they have considered their issues in the rate-setting process.”

In 2011-12 councils generated operating revenue of $8.18 billion, with rates and charges making up $4.09 billion.

The Auditor-General found that between 2001-02 and 2009-10, mean rates per property assessment in Victoria increased by an average of 6.3 per cent a year, outstripping Consumer Price Index rises.

The Auditor-General found that the state Department of Planning and Community Development did not proactively support or guide councils and could not provide assurances that laws for councils on rates were being applied.

It recommended that reporting of data should be improved and standardised so that it is consistent across all councils and easily interpreted by residents.

”Council engagement and communication with ratepayers on rating decisions and rate matters varied significantly in depth and quality. Councils do not provide sufficient or consistent information to ratepayers about their rating decisions,” it said.

The report also identified the major drivers of rate increases in 2012-13, which included the carbon tax, maintaining services and cost shifting by other levels of government.

Local Government Minister Jeanette Powell said the report showed the importance of the decision to develop a mandatory performance reporting framework for local councils.

“The policy development will help councils to develop a more strategic approach to the use of rates and provide the public with a better understanding of how their local council is performing,” Ms Powell said.

She said Local Government Victoria will release an updated rating strategy guide after the ministerial guidelines for differential rates – some councils charge pokies venues double rates to fund problem gambling projects – are finalised.

Shadow local government minister Richard Wynne said rates are a substantial impost on every household and that it was ”incumbent on all local governments to be as transparent as possible in informing ratepayers on how rates are collected and what they are used for”.

 

Despite all the talks and presentations the councillors get on governance, it is still not getting through…..

The Age (23 Oct 2012) reported that:

HELEN Whiteside considers herself a normal sort of person. She’s political, no doubt – a paid-up Liberal Party member. But her time as Glen Eira mayor left her so disillusioned she wonders why an average community member would bother running for council.

With council elections winding up this week, Mrs Whiteside is calling on residents to scrutinise candidates carefully. As for the troubled Glen Eira councillors – some of whom were sacked in 2005 and are standing for re-election – they all deserve to be thrown out, she says.

Glen Eira – which covers suburbs such as Caulfield, Bentleigh and Elsternwick – consistently outperforms other councils on community satisfaction.

But in the past four years the council has faced the Ombudsman’s scrutiny over 10 separate issues, one Ombudsman’s report revealing Councillor Frank Penhalluriack’s alleged bullying behaviour and failure to declare conflicts of interest, and a critical assessment from the local government watchdog, the third since 1998.

Mrs Whiteside, a popular mayor, resigned in 2010. The council suppressed her letter of resignation. She told The Age she resigned because she felt some councillors were not declaring conflicts of interest and were set against chief executive Andrew Newton, wasting at least $30,000 on extra legal advice during the renegotiation of his contract.

Now that every sitting councillor except one is standing for re-election, the former mayor says residents should think carefully. ”Integrity is fundamental to being a councillor,” she says. ”Transparency, accountability and being objective. I believe councillors should make decisions for the long-term best interests of the entire community.

And her former colleagues? ”I don’t think they should be re-elected,” she says.

Mrs Whiteside said she was particularly disturbed about the 2010 decision to relinquish public open space to the Chabad House synagogue extension at 441-496 Inkerman Street, St Kilda East. She alleged Cr Michael Lipshutz had a conflict of interest because of an association with the synagogue’s benefactor, Jewish community leader Joseph Gutnick.

Mr Lipshutz said Mrs Whiteside’s revival of this matter was ”anti-Semitism of the worst kind. She is saying that because I am Jewish I am not fair-minded … I have no association with (Mr Gutnick) whatsoever,” he said. (Greens Cr Neil Pilling also voted to hand over the park.)

Mr Lipshutz said Mrs Whiteside was a ”failed councillor and a hopeless mayor who divided the council”.

Since the last election in 2008, councillors have had several brushes with the state’s integrity agencies and the court system. This year chief executive Mr Newton filed a bullying claim against Cr Penhalluriack. The hardware store owner refused anti-bullying training and is fighting councillor misconduct allegations at the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal.

In a 2010 investigation, Chief Municipal Inspector David Wolf found insufficient evidence to prosecute any councillor, but uncovered councillor behaviour ”at odds” with the council’s objectives and ”underlying issues with regard to transparency and accountability”.

When drafting the chief executive’s contract in 2010, councillors inserted a clause requesting he notify them of any inquiries from the state’s integrity agencies. Mr Wolf found the illegal clause existed in an early draft, but no one owned up to putting it there. ”Despite all the talks and presentations the councillors get on governance, it is still not getting through,” a council source told The Age.

The Glen Eira city council elections are this Saturday.

 

Share your budget review experience …

We encourage ratepayers to log their budget review experiences and leave an audit trail of transparency and accountability issues. We will publish this audit trail in this website – the information will be used as evidence to assist RPV’s discussions with the Minister of Local Government and also to help the Auditor General Office access case studies for their on-going audit reviews of Local Government functions. The first audit trail is the Monash case.

Being ripped off with rate hikes?

Rate hikes are happening in many Councils across the country. We review a few budgets in several cities and are finding a common pattern – there is no transparent sound justification underpinning annual rate hikes. Some Councils are also misleading ratepayers in budget review – Councillors already agreed on rate increases and consequent budgets when Council allow the process of public review to occur. The process is not democratic nor is transparent and is most misleading.

Are council rates property taxes or fees for service?

The Municipal Association of Victoria (MAV), an association of all Victorian councils, thinks that council rates are property taxes and yet many Councils charge rates based on the costs of services. MAV also states that “An increase in property values does not cause a rate rise. Council budgets are pre-determined to meet expenditure requirements, and include any potential rate rise. Property valuations are revenue neutral – they are used to distribute how much each ratepayer will pay, according to the value of their property compared to other properties within the municipality.”  Ratepayers need to see market value and operating cost drivers of their annual rate increases in their rate statements, not hook winked by obscure excuses in news and Council website media.

16 May Press Release – Review Findings: Councils’ Financial Management & Rating Practices

Press Release has been issued to highlight the major concerns discovered in the review of several councils’ financial management and rating practices. A recent April 2012 audit report on council’s performance reporting practices is currently available on the VAGO webpage  and the issues reported also impact rate pricing and confirm some of our investigation findings. Also see pages inquiry projects and election matters.