An Open Letter to the Minister for Local Government

To: Hon. Natalie Hutchins, MP, Minister for Local Government and member for Keilor, Parliament of Victoria

From:      Rod Vance, 54 Main Street Blackburn 3130

Date:        Tuesday, 16th December, 2014

Cc:            Full Board of Councillors, Whitehorse City Council,

Hon. Robert Clark MP, member for Box Hill, Parliament of Victoria,

Hon. Neil Angus MP, member for Forest Hill, Parliament of Victoria,

Mr. Peter Olney, President, Whitehorse Ratepayers and Residents,

Ms. Noelene Duff, CEO, Whitehorse City Council

Subject:     Our Dysfunctional Local Governments and the Urgent Need for Reform in Victoria

Dear Minister Hutchins

I congratulate you on your recent election as Minister for Local Government in our State. I am a Citizen of Victoria who sees some fundamental defects in the way that Local Government is run here. I, and several other citizens of our local municipality, would greatly appreciate a short audience with you some time in the New Year to share with you our experiences and our suggestions for reform for local government. I appreciate you are extremely busy, but I believe the points I make are deeply fundamental, common to all local governments, and get to the root of deep unhappiness and grievance many Common Citizens feel about local government. I see government as greatly important: government needs to work openly, sincerely and truthfully with Citizens to solve the deep problems that our land and our children will face in the future.

I believe the fundamental problems are simple, although deep rooted, and simple reforms could work real change and improvement of the relationship between Citizens and Governments in this land:

  1. Fundamentally, council administrations in Victoria seem to believe they are answerable to no one. They see no problem in lying to or withholding key information from the public about any matter and there are no laws forbidding this practice;
  2. This belief is well founded and rooted in the fact that there are no independent checks on the power of council administrations as far as I can tell. Councils set their own codes of conduct and the CEO ultimately judges whether that code of conduct has been upheld. Ultimately, the CEO sits in judgment of her or himself. There are no laws forbidding misleading of and lying to the public and, indeed, administrations are rewarded for lying and miscommunication as it is has so far been perceived as cost saving through deceit by the State Government.
  3. I believe a 2008 Ombudsman’s recommendation that councilors may not become involved in matters of administration is being systematically and dangerously abused. On the face of it, this seems reasonable. However, I see elected oversight as essential to good administration, and there should be no barrier to this as long as clear rules about declaration of any conflict of interest in hearing matters of administration. Elected politicians at State and Federal level intervene on matters of administration regularly: the public expects them to as long as they declare conflicts of interest. I have evidence that my own local council administration intimidates councilors into believing that all matters are of administration, thus rendering elected oversight powerless to check any behaviour within the council that the CEO sees fit. I do not believe this practice is confined to my own local government.
  4. Elected councilors are thus reduced to, and exploited as, toady extensions of the administration’s PR department. There is little or no real rôle other than this that they feel they can fulfill. Indeed, councilors, on election in our local government, are sent on a ratepayer-funded “induction weekend”, where the administration wines and dines, at ratepayers’ expense, the councilors and “trains” and “guides” them as to how exactly they are to discharge their duty of overseeing the council administration. I see this as outrightly corrupt and not at all different from a trial combatant’s grooming of the judge through entertainment or gifts for the combatant’s preferred outcome. Naturally the latter is outright illegal, but the same deed within local government is perfectly legal;
  5. I have been working in this land for nearly thirty years, I have dealt with many organizations both government and private in many lands and many different cultures with varying standards of honesty and integrity, and I have never experienced anything like the degraded standards and the culture of blatant dishonesty I see in dealing with Whitehorse City Council. There seems to me to be a deep seated culture that within this organization that is convinced (1) that Common Citizens do not deserve to be communicated truthfully with, unless they are wealthy enough to communicate through expensive legal counsel (2) that Common Citizens are contemptible dullards to be played like Rosencrantz’s flute and (3) of its imagined supreme self importance and unanswerability to anybody. I believe Whitehorse is far from unique in this respect.

The solutions to these problems are pretty clear, need not cost a great deal and would greatly restore public faith in Government.

  1. Firstly, if you are not willing to do anything else, then I suggest that Victoria should sack its elected councilors and return to the Kennett era boards of commissioners. This was a greatly more honest system of local government than we have now, for the fact is that now people have no rights in dealing with local government, the power of elected oversight is being systematically undermined by council administrations and what we have now differs little from the Kennett era style of local government. At least in the Kennett era we knew we had no rights and were not insulted by a sham pretence of democracy;
  2. Reform must clearly make council administrations answerable, in a solid, meaningful way to a truly independent At present there are only the Ombudsman and Local Government Inspectorate which will only investigate breaches of the law, not breaches of codes of conduct, and the latter are investigated by the CEO of the council itself! The Ombudsman’s office, for example, has told me that effectively they take the CEO’s word as gospel. As I said, none of the behaviours that make local government so dysfunctional – systemic lying to and withholding of information from Citizens – is unlawful, so local governments are left pretty much unaccountable to anybody unless they stoop to actual criminal activity. I believe that we should strive for a much higher standard for the governments of our land than merely “noncriminalhood”, which seems to be our local government’s interpretation of the phrase “the highest standards of integrity”;
  3. I believe that an excellent and low cost method to create an independent disciplinary body for both administration staff and elected councilors would be through a Citizen’s jury or tribunal, chosen by sortition, probably through the same randomized process that appoints juries to our courts. Such a jury might be chaired and guided by a legal professional, but ultimately it would randomly chosen Citizens – aside from council employees – who would hear complaints against councils and would have the power to mete out disciplinary action such as (i) dismissing council employees, or assigning indelible and everlasting demerit points which would trigger dismissal once reaching a certain number, (ii) compelling investigation by IBAC or Ombudsman, (iii) dismissing councilors and declare their positions open for immediate re-election. Sortition-chosen tribunals cannot be stacked or gotten at and are immune from corruption and conflicts of interest;
  4. CEOs and managers reporting to CEOs should have strictly maximum terms of employment, with a CEOs and such managers being forced to vacate their position after, say, four years and be ineligible for their positions in the same council again. These people have enormous, unchecked power; the United States of America’s presidency has a limited term for exactly the same reason;

Naturally, a genuine committee  of reform with genuine participation by Citizens would come up with many other fantastic ideas. The lifting of standards in local government is sorely needed Minister, and would be, I should think, a satisfying outcome for your tenure to be defined by.

In closing, I cite several behaviours by Whitehorse City Council which I believe bespeak their systemic culture of unanswerability to Citizens. However, these are for illustration only: my main aim here is reform for my childrens future.

Yours sincerely

Rod Vance

Click here to download my declaration made to Victoria Police in March 2013

In Whitehorse City Council we have an appalling problem with dishonesty in communication between the council administration and Citizens. I summarise a typical communication cycle as I and many Citizens experience it with local government:

  1. Citizens ask for information on matters touching them from local government;
  2. The local government answers with either misleading information or outright lies, assuming that Citizens do not have the financial means to challenge the information;
  3. If a Citizen is wealthy enough, the ask for information is again made through expensive legal counsel, in words that the advising lawyer knows the local government cannot sidestep;
  4. The local government takes back misleading information given in 2. but refuses to acknowledge its error and simply rides any criticism out.
  5. The government then seeks to make itself right retroactively.

To illustrate this “lie, deny, ride-it-out” systemic behaviour, take for example the following. Note the triviality of the underlying matter and how, if the council cannot be trusted to give the truth on such trivial matters, how little hope there must be of truthful and open communication in any matter of real importance:

  1. The council refuses to maintain a short stretch of road which it has let decay to a totally unsafe state, saying that this road is owned by the adjoining residents and that it is their responsibility;
  2. On being challenged by a lawyer’s letter, the council recants and admits ownership of the road, but instead now tries to say that residents adjoining the road are liable to be sued for damages arising from any accident on the council owned road;
  3. On being pushed further on matter 2, the council claims it has legal advice showing that Citizens are legally liable for damages arising on council owned roads.
  4. Residents then challenge the council to show this legal advice. After many waffling nonreplies through email, the council admits in writing that this legal advice does not exist. No apology, even for “misinformation”, is given, however;
  5. The council then implements a special charge scheme, further to rates, to make residents pay for the roads maintenance. Not being content with this, at the same time, the council underhandedly makes residents truly liable for damages through an implicit agreement specifically worded to that end and which residents enter into on funding.
  6. Residents have legal advice not to enter the special charge scheme, as to do so would indeed give the council grounds to sue residents to recover costs if it itself is sued. Some residents enter the agreement, thinking they have little choice since it is the government forcing them, whilst others do not and now do not use the road so as to help shield themselves legally from the legal uncertainty the council has now created;

In my opinion, all of the deceit and underhandedness above must have been intentional. There were many chances for apology, many chances for compromise. The council simply seemed offended by Citizens simply seeking the truth from the council and by Citizens simply seeking knowledge of their own rights and went ahead with 5. and 6. out of sheer spite.

I also make the following allegations against Whitehorse City Council and cite evidence afterwards:

  1. Intimidation of Citizens

Whitehorse City Council sent an agent to my house in 2011 with the express intention of intimidation, so as to frighten me into leaving off my factfinding activities and my probing the council about their truthfulness in dealing with Citizens. The man would not identify himself nor say whom he represented.

Evidence: Please see my statutory declaration herewith describing the happening in full.

  1. Intimidation of Councillors

Whitehorse City Council fosters a culture of intimidation that prevents elected councilors from holding the administration to account.

Evidence: (1) In speaking privately with councilors, I find several of them share my concerns at the council’s behaviour, but seem cowed by the administration and unwilling to do anything. One councilor even said they were “forbidden” from getting involved in such matters; I believe this reflects that councillor’s inability to tell matters of administration from matters of governance, and thus this state of affairs would seem to bespeak the administration’s abuse of the Ombudsman’s 2008 recommendation. (2) Councillors are sent on induction weekends where the administration “trains” them on how to discharge their duty to hold the administration accountable.

Click here to download my declaration made to Victoria Police in March 2013