Councils told to fix contractor complaints policies

When Melbourne rate payer ‘Mr Wilson’ contacted his local council seeking $4,000 to fix a leaking storm water pipe that was flooding his home, he was fobbed off to the contractor believed to be responsible for the damage.

Deborah Glass

After thirteen months of ‘back and forth’, Mr Wilson was informed council had found no evidence the contractor had damaged the pipes, which remained unfixed, and had closed the book on the matter.

Mr Wilson’s case resulted in an investigation by the Victorian Ombudsman which has also uncovered major problems in the way councils handle complaints about contractors.

“During our interactions, the Council centred much of its response around liability, when that is not, and has never been, the key point,” Ombudsman Deborah Glass said.

“Whether or not the Council, the contractor, or the complainant is liable to pay for the damage, the Council has a responsibility to deal with the complaint.”

‘Stubborn persistence’

Ms Glass said Mr Wilson’s situation wasn’t helped by “Council’s stubborn position of persistently claiming it was not a complaint, but a claim for compensation”.

But she said while the report focused on Glen Eira City Council, which was at the centre of the standoff with  Mr Wilson, the problems it highlight reflect widespread confusion about how councils in general handle complaints about third parties.

“While this complaint involved one ratepayer and one council, I am tabling this report to highlight bigger issues,” she said.

Differing approaches

The investigation found only 38 per cent of Victorian council complaint handling policies contained a section on contractor complaints and ‘contractor’ was clearly defined in less than half. Forty-three per cent failed to clearly outline contractor responsibilities.

The 30 out of 79 complaints policies that did actually refer to contractors took many different approaches to handling them.

“It appears many may have more work to do in developing and explaining their processes for these types of complaints.” Ms Glass said.

“Councils are an integral part of the lives of Victorians and complaint handling is core business for councils. This report should further assist them in managing their complaints processes better.”

She recommended that councils develop specific procedures and processes for contractor complaints, and that Glen Eira apologise to Mr Wilson and outline the reasons for their decision.

Local Government Victoria has accepted the ombudsman’s recommendation to develop guidelines specifically dealing with contractor complaints by September.

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