TWO years ago when a resident asked Melville council to improve its complaint handling procedures, he was shot down on the basis they were already “a model for other local governments”.
But it was a different story this week when local government minister David Templeman announced an official inquiry into why Melville’s been flooded by unresolved complaints.
The council’s CEO Shayne Silcox now says he’s spent “the last couple of years” fruitlessly asking a swag of agencies to help him find ways to mediate lingering issues.
On Wednesday Mr Templeman announced an officer from the local government department would head a “wide-ranging” inquiry into the “operation and affairs” of Melville which is due to start within days.
“I need to underline that there is not any suspension of the council…but it is an inquiry that has been deemed important, given the substantial number of complaints over a period of a couple of years that have been received on an ongoing basis to the department,” Mr Templeman said.
“They vary with regard to responses to questions at question time at council meetings through to queries about land acquisitions, relationships and the behaviour of individuals including elected members and council staff.
The complaints about land acquisitions are believed to centre around the purchase of a $3.8 million property which was signed off by the CEO and mayor Russell Aubrey before it had official council sanction, which was done retrospectively. Another complaint was that the council had been buying up parcels of land in order to offer them as development sites, which some residents say represents a conflict of interest given the council determines a property’s usage and can therefore affect its value.
“The wave park is one of a number of issues that have been raised,” Mr Templeman said.
The minister said he’d been concerned about the “tone” of a council meeting he attended with Bicton MLA Lisa O’Malley, saying councillors, administrators and the public weren’t respectful of each other.
He said hopefully following the inquiry, which could take up to a year to complete, the community’s trust of its council would be restored.
Mr Templeman said the council had raised with him what it considers to be a high number of “vexatious” complaints, a point Dr Silcox hammered home in his response to the announcement of the inquiry.
“I have been extremely concerned for some time about the lack of support and lack of avenues available to the local government sector to deal with repetitive complainants, particularly when the health and wellbeing of employees is at risk and resources are impacted and being diverted away from the delivery of services to the community,” Dr Silcox said.
That comment had Mark McLerie, secretary of the Melville Residents and Ratepayers Association seeing red.
Back in December 2015, before he’d joined the MRRA, he went to Melville’s annual general meeting of electors asking for the council to form a complaint committee, get regular reports on complaints it had received and provide an avenue for councillors to become involved. A motion he put forward, which he says was run past former local government minister Tony Simpson beforehand, was adopted unanimously by the 20 ratepayers who’d rocked up to the meeting.
In response to his questions, Mr McLerie received a rundown on why the council’s current procedures were adequate, including that they were based on international standards, had been regularly reviewed and were acknowledged by the ombudsman as industry-leading. There were no mentions of gaps or frustrations.
The electors’ recommendation was also ignored when the minutes of the AGM came to full council a month later.
“Had council not been so arrogant and listened to the voice of the electors, then the minister may not have found the city complaints handling wanting and council might not be in the substantial mess that it is now in,” Mr McLerie told the Herald this week.
In his response to the inquiry, Dr Silcox said the council would fully co-operate with the department. He noted that in the council’s most recent survey of residents, 90 per cent had indicated they were satisfied with the council’s governance.
At this week’s agenda briefing forum, councillors were given a report, initiated by Dr Silcox which found the council had spent at least $178,000 over the last 14 months dealing with complaints, ranging from question time to appearing at the State Administrative Tribunal.
The report recommends a “risk mitigation strategy” of refusing to answer repetitive or inappropriate questions to the detriment of the health and safety of employees.
The Herald asked Mr Aubrey whether he felt the inquiry might have been politically motivated, given recent state electoral boundaries have the Liberal-leaning council surrounded by Labor MPs. Ms O’Malley was a councillor until knocking off rising Liberal star Matt Taylor, while a Labor insider recently told the Herald he’d seen an internal memo urging the party to exert more influence on local government.
Mr Aubrey hasn’t been taking calls from the Herald for the last couple of years, however during an interview with WAMN News this week, he came within a whisker of blaming political interference before saying it wasn’t something he wanted to get into.
by STEVE GRANT