COUNCILLORS SIGNED CODE UNDER PROTEST

The 107 Victorian councillors who risked being sacked for failing to sign the state government’s new councillor code of conduct have been reprieved – but Bandicoot believes it’s cold comfort for a number of Mornington Peninsula Shire councillors said to have signed the “edited” code under protest.

The draft code received from the government by the shire is understood to have been changed in myriad ways, a number of them unacceptable to some councillors, who signed only to avoid being struck off as councillors by the heavy-handed state government diktat.

Now premier Daniel Andrews has been forced to issue the reprieve rather than face the chaos that would have ensued from sacking the 107 councillors – and which would ensue if 13 recalcitrant councils across the state got the axe, requiring appointment of interim administrators.

In a blustering justification for his about-turn, Mr Andrews said councils (and presumably the 107 councillors) had “done the wrong thing.

They have failed to comply with the law of our state. [Councils have] asked us to fix it, and in the interests of ratepayers that’s exactly what we’ll do,” he said, to defend his silly law.

With council elections due on 22 October – 67 days away – the premier did a fair spin job on the rebellious 107.

Finding out which local councillors signed the charter under duress can be partly gleaned from who voted for and against the document, recorded in the 6 June council meeting minutes.

Those for the modified charter were councillors Anne Shaw (who seconded the motion), Andrew “Billy” Dixon, Bev Colomb, David Garnock, David Gibb (mover of the motion), and Antonella Celi.

[Of these, Bandicoot knows of one who has long wished to dump council meeting question time and another who suggested that all agenda items be discussed in camera, not in public, so all the public would hear would be “moved, seconded, carried”. And one of these has suggested that “nuisance” ratepayers should be microchipped and put in the pound.]

Those against the code were Graham Pittock, Tim Wood, Tim Rodgers and Hugh Fraser.

A further clue to the “under-protest” councillors can perhaps be found in the dates on which councillors signed the charter.

Councillors Shaw, Colomb, Garnock, Gibb and Celi signed on 20 June. Cr Dixon added his signature on 4 July.

Councillors Pittock, Wood, Rodgers and Fraser signed on 5 July, very close to the deadline.

What were the reservations some councillors had to the edited code? Broadly, that the changes were unnecessary, ambiguous, restrictive and confusing, Bandicoot believes. It might well be relevant that two of the four are experienced lawyers – Tim Wood, QC, a retired County Court judge, and veteran barrister Hugh Fraser.

One code modification deals with information deemed as confidential – although Bandicoot is relying to a degree on hints and whispers, plus his knowledge of councillors and their known predilections for openness or secrecy.

The shire’s draft charter prohibits distribution of material marked “confidential”, adding the words “or which by its content could be reasonably considered to be of a confidential nature”.

Contrast this with the plainer language used in the East Gippsland Shire’s code, which states: “A councillor must not disclose information that the he or she knows, or should reasonably know, is confidential.” The italics are the Bandicoot’s.

And – to sidetrack for a moment – compare the communication statements of East Gippsland and Mornington Peninsula shires.

East Gippsland: Council is committed to keeping the community informed of all appropriate issues and will endeavour to ensure that the messages communicated through the media are open, honest, clear and consistent. (Straightforward and positive.)

Mornington Peninsula: We recognise … we have a primary responsibility to be responsive to community views and to adequately communicate the position and decisions of council. (A bit begrudging, Bandicoot thinks.)

But, wait one moment! The Model Councillor Code of Conduct councils received as a template on which to craft their own opus differs by one word from the shire code – the word “accurately” in the Model Code becomes “adequately” in the shire code! Adequately rather than “accurately”! That has to be a code violation.

Another argument about the code is this. If each council has written a unique code of conduct, Victoria has 79 codes, each different, each probably written (as the shire’s appears to have been) by a gaggle of bush lawyers aiming to best advance their interests and prejudices.

Thus, the bodies to which complaints are sent must become expert in 79 codes where surely one covering the entire state would be sufficient.

But, since the main complaints recipients – the Local Government Inspectorate and the Ombudsman – follow the traditional public servant policy of masterly inactivity and arse-covering (sorry, maiden aunts), the public servants are probably not concerned by this.

And, to conclude (if you have stayed with the Bandicoot this far)…

One amusing aspect of the shire’s version of the code refers directly to the dreaded media – the reptiles of Press, radio, TV, social media and Bandicoots who cause such distress to honest councillors trying to get about their business behind closed doors.

While the model code deals with protecting confidential information in just 19 words, the shire code lingers lovingly on the subject for 271.

It ends with this threatening but ultimately impotent snarl: councillors must not “pass information deemed as ‘Confidential Information’ in accordance with Section 77 of the Act to the Media, via third parties”.

A ban on leaking to the media, imposed by a gaggle of malevolent but leaky bush lawyers? Bandicoot winks at the statue on his mantel shelf of Saint Jude, patron saint of lost causes. Saint Jude winks back.

Clearly the reptiles are doing their job! And will look henceforth to getting their leaks via fourth parties.