Victoria sacks Wangaratta Council over “rampant bullying”

By Paul Hemsley

The Victorian government has moved to turf out elected representatives from the Rural City of Wangaratta Council and appoint administrators until the 2016 council elections after two independent investigations found that the council was dysfunctional and “rampant” with bullying and intimidation towards staff and fellow councillors.

The state government’s sacking of the council was sealed last week through special legislation introduced into Parliament by Minister for Local Government Jeanette Powell, which passed both the Legislative Council and Legislative Assembly, where it received bipartisan support.

The state government based its decision to intervene and dismiss the council on the advice of two damning reports tabled in the Victorian Parliament by the Inspector of the Municipal Association Peter Stephenson and Probity Auditor Bill Scales.

The reports’ findings paint a woeful picture the inner workings of the Wangaratta Council with Ms Powell, who describing it as a “toxic working environment”.

Ms Powell said dismissing an elected council was always the “last resort” but the “rampant bullying and intimidating behaviour towards staff and fellow councillors and the waste of rate payer funds had forced the Victorian Coalition government’s hand”.

“The Rural City of Wangaratta Council has failed to meet its legal obligations to provide a safe workplace by allowing a culture of bullying and intimidating behaviour among some councillors towards staff to grow, impacting on staff wellbeing and leading to a large number of staff resignations,” Ms Powell said.

Ms Powell reiterated the findings of the two reports, saying that the bullying behaviour towards fellow councillors has resulted in one councillor resigning after taking WorkCover approved sick leave and two other councillors threatening to withdraw from some council activities.

The council’s problems have again proved that bullying is a costly business for ratepayers but a lucrative one for lawyers.

According to Ms Powell, the “council’s failure to govern” resulted in $1.5 million of ratepayers’ funds spent on dispute procedures, Councillor Conduct Panels, legal fees, staff departures and temporary replacement staff.

“This waste of funds has taken the Council from a budget surplus to deficit position for the current financial year and there is no end in sight to the drain on resources under this Council,” Ms Powell said.

The financial consequences from these disputes was backed up in Mr Stephenson’s report, which said that beneficial community initiatives have been delayed or scrapped as a result of the reallocation of council funds to address legal and staffing issues and the interests and needs of the community have been ignored.

These issues have spilled into other areas of council duties, raising Ms Powell’s concern that the council has failed to deliver proposed flood recovery and flood mitigation works as it heads into the next wet season because project staff have been reallocated to fill positions made by sick and absent staff.

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