Increase in local government complaints to NSW Ombudsman

The New South Wales Ombudsman Bruce Barbour has reported an increase in the numbers of complaints about local government.

Tabled in Parliament today, the Annual Report for 2009-2010 recorded a 20 per cent increase in formal complaints about councils.

Mr Barbour said there were substantial increases in complaints concerning rates, charges and fees, development, enforcement, environmental services and engineering services.

“People often turn to their council when things go wrong in their neighbourhood,” Mr Barbour said.

“Councils need to have good complain handing and enforcement policies so they can competently and fairly deal with problems and enforce the law.”

The Ombudsman’s annual report referenced 22 councils and shires from across the state, including a council claiming to have no complaint handling policy.

When the Ombudsman investigated a complaint about Pittwater Council issuing a fine to a resident without consultation, the Council admitted that it had no complaint handling policy, enforcement policy or written investigation policy.

Mr Barbour said an investigation of Manly Council on complaints about “discriminatory treatment and lack of action on unauthorised developments” found planning staff to be “inadequately supervised”.

He said planning reports and consents were poorly drafted and failure to securely store copies of planning approvals hampered the Council’s ability to deal with non-compliance issues.

“Some Manly Council staff incurred significant legal costs with little or no regard for the public interest, council’s budget or their obligations under council’s code of conduct and the Local Government Act,” Mr Barbour said.

“They then ignored legal advice when it went against their personal views to the detriment of the complainants.”

Mr Barbour said the Council’s regulatory manager resigned during the investigation when he was unable to produce evidence of purported legal qualifications.

He warned local governments not to repeat the same mistakes of councils referenced in the report.

“All too often councils are aware of problems but they get put into the ‘too hard basket’ until my office becomes involved,” Mr Barbour said.

“Failing to deal with complaints properly can seriously undermine a council’s credibility in the eyes of the community.”

Read the full report: NSW Ombudsman Annual Report 2009-2010 [PDF]

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