Code of conduct ‘being used for vexatious complaints’

NSW councils spent more than $1.5 million investigating code of conduct complaints against councillors and staff last year but found fewer than 50 breaches.

Greg Warren

Figures reported to Office of Local Government show 395 code of conduct complaints were received in 2019-20, with the cost of dealing with them amounting to $1,593 416.

However, the number of finalised complaints where a breach was found came to just 48.

The data also shows that 154 more complaints were made in 2019-20 than the previous year, while the amount spent investigating them increased by $635,000.

‘Politically motivated’

Labor’s spokesman on local government Greg Warren says the figures show the code of conduct is being used for vexatious and politically motivated complaints,  rather than doing what it is meant to do and holding councillors and council staff to account.

“The process for the code of conduct is broken and is not fit for purpose and this is coming at an enormous cost for local communities,” he told Government News.

“The code of conduct process in councils is often used for political expedience, doesn’t achieve the outcome and comes at enormous cost to local communities and councils.”

Mr Warren said complainants needed to be held accountable and should face consequences for vexatious complaints.

“There are multiple things that the government needs to explore to fix up the process for code of conduct investigations because it’s its frankly not achieving the outcomes,” he said.

$200,000 cost of dealing with complaints

The council that reported the highest number of complaints was Lismore, with 52 complaints received and $82,000 spent investigating them. However, a breach was found in only 2 cases.

That was followed by Armidale with 24 complaints, none of which were upheld, and Inner west with 20, where only two were upheld.

The highest number of complaints upheld was at Snowy Monaro, where all six were upheld.

The cost of complaints was highest at Georges River, which reported 17 complaints at a cost of more than $200,000. Three breaches were found.

Northern Beaches spent $102,471 on 10 complaints, with one breach found; and Armidale spent $87,495 on 24 complaints with zero breaches found.

There were also zero breaches found at Cumberland, which spent $83,311 on 15 complaints. Wingecarribee spent $81,000 on 12 complaints, with two upheld.

LGO to review misconduct framework

The latest version of the Model Code of Conduct covers a range of issues including harassment, discrimination and bullying. It also covers pecuniary interests and conflicts of interest, as well as planning, development other regulatory functions.

Local government minister Shelley Hancock in June commissioned an independent review of the framework for dealing with councillor misconduct via the model code of conduct, including the complaints process and the tools and processes for conducting investigations.

A spokesman for LGNSW said councils were committed to upholding the highest standards of transparency and accountability provided by the model code of conduct.

“The minister promised councils would be invited to participate in the review, and we look forward to taking part in the review process once it commences,” he said.

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2 thoughts on “Code of conduct ‘being used for vexatious complaints’

  1. “Our” local council has had 187 complaints lodged with the Office of the Independent Assessor (OIA) which was created in December 2018 against its councillors. This covers the period 23/12/2018-23/08/2021. Sadly, most of these have been politically motivated and originated from within council and have been directed at Division 1’s former Cr (55) and current Cr (45), both men who have worked tirelessly for their community. The OIA would not release the total number of complaints relevant to “our” council until forced to do so under RTI. The complaints against Division 1 Crs were politically motivated and the vast majority originated from within council, not unhappy residents/ratepayers. To date there have been 2 upheld complaints – one against the former Cr who did not seek re-election in 2020 due to the toxic culture at council and which took 2 years and court cases to reach a finding that he had released an internal e-mail. The OIA needs to be investigated for bias and effectiveness. My favourite complaint was that my Cr was “causing mischief”!!!!!

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