Council pests to face new bar

Local Government Minister Jeanette Powell.
Local Government Minister Jeanette Powell.

LOCAL Government Minister Jeanette Powell has revealed another proposed reform to curb Victoria’s unruly councillors as she prepares to depart the portfolio with a pending cabinet reshuffle.

Mrs Powell, who sacked Wangaratta Council in September, yesterday announced a proposal that a councillor who has been suspended would be prevented from attending council meetings or entering council premises until the serious or gross misconduct matter was resolved.

She said this could avoid an entire council being suspended as a result of the poor behaviour of a single councillor.

“These reforms are necessary to give communities confidence in their locally elected representatives,” Mrs Powell said.

“The overwhelming majority of councillors are honourable, hardworking people who represent the best interests of their community and I believe they will welcome this important reform.

“Thorough sector consultation has revealed a need for more effective powers, which would only be exercised when a councillor’s conduct could threaten the safety of a person or prevent a council from governing efficiently.”

Mrs Powell’s proposed reform will go to Parliament for approval this year, along with increased powers for mayors and stronger powers for the Local Government Inspectorate to investigate and prosecute breaches of the Local Government Act.

Last year she secured parliamentary approval to dismiss Wangaratta Council and appoint administrators to hold office until the next council elections in 2016.

Mrs Powell said she was forced to act by the failure of councillors to address rampant bullying and intimidating behaviour towards staff and fellow councillors.

She has never named individual councillors, but Julian Fidge was a key player in the turmoil.

Dr Fidge said the minister over-reacted and pointed to the recent dropping of 77 complaints made to the inspectorate as proof.

“The minister has demonstrated many times she has no judgment in handling these matters,” he said.

“With Wangaratta Council, there were, according to the minister, 77 complaints made to the inspectorate, some of which were very serious complaints that could have resulted in councillors being jailed.

“The complaints were so weak that none of them was proceeded with.

“But the minister used them to justify sacking an entire council.”

Mrs Powell, 65, a former Shepparton shire president and Campaspe commissioner, will retire from state politics at the November election after serving 12 years.