Ombudsman stands by words and lawyers bring “abuse of trust” class action

REPORT IN: Ombudsman Deborah Glass maintains council was wrong and not transparent in its use of the waste management levy. Picture: MARK JESSER
REPORT IN: Ombudsman Deborah Glass maintains council was wrong and not transparent in its use of the waste management levy. Picture: MARK JESSER

Lawyers set to represent Wodonga ratepayers in a class action against council have said the organisation misled residents and abused their trust. 

Shine Lawyers in conjunction with Wangaratta’s John Suta will be hosting a town hall meeting on May 23.

Senior solicitor Tristan Gaven said the firm believed ratepayers would be entitled to restitution.

“Wodonga locals were misled by council and it’s time they took ownership for this abuse of locals’ trust,” he said.

“This money belongs to locals, not to the council.”

Mr Gaven said the firm had received preliminary backing by a litigation funder, meaning residents would not have to pay to pursue the class action, with the funder gaining a commission should the claim be successful. 

“The fact a funder has taken interest is a promising sign, showing they believe there’s merit in the claim,” Mr Gaven said. 

Mr Gaven said it was not yet clear whether payment would come from the council, or whether council insurance and assistance from Local Government Victoria could cover the costs.

Wodonga Council would not comment on who would cover the cost of a successful class action.

The town hall meeting will be held at the Albury Entertainment Centre from 6pm.

It coincides with a visit to Wodonga by Ombudsman Deborah Glass, during which she reiterated her findings that Wodonga Council, while not acting illegally, had been wrong and not transparent.

Ms Glass also hit back at claims Wodonga Council made in a letter to the Premier.

“It won’t surprise you to know I don’t think my report was unbalanced or misleading, I think it speaks for itself,” she said.

“Council were clear with me about what they thought their position was and that was reflected in the report – but ultimately I don’t agree with them and that’s my prerogative as Ombudsman.”

Ms Glass said criticism was “part of the job”.

“The reports I put out, not everyone will be happy with, and they will say what they choose as a result of it,” she said.

Ms Glass said by including non-waste management costs within the levy, council was avoiding scrutiny that comes with rate spending.

“I do accept council consulted and I do accept they did what they were supposed to do under the Local Government Act, I’ve never disagreed with them on that,” she said.

“But did they know what they were being consulted on? I believe and I said in the report that the charge was buried in the financial fine print.

“The assumption there is you don’t need to scrutinize that charge because that’s the cost of the disposal of refuse. That’s where I take issue with the argument it is simply another line in the ledger, because it’s not transparent.”

Council also would not comment on whether it believed an ordinary ratepayer would have known the waste management levy was paying for more than the direct cost of refuse.

Chief executive Patience Harrington said council had accepted the Ombudsman’s recommendation.

“It’s time to move forward and we commit to involving our community in that process,” she said. “We know there are many more councils across the state in a similar position in what is a sector-wide issue.” 

Ms Glass said there was nothing inherently wrong with 72 of 79 councils having a waste management levy but she wants to see the Act tightened.

Residents can find out more on the town hall meeting at shine.com.au/wodonga-rates.