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Councillor in the clear

SOUTH Gippsland Shire Councillor Don Hill said he has been “vindicated”.

He successfully appealed against a Code of Conduct Panel finding that he was dishonest with the community and accused council staff of being misleading.

Cr Hill appealed the panel’s finding at the Victorian Civil Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) and VCAT last Thursday issued a report dismissing the panel’s findings.

Cr Hill said the conduct panel cost council $60,000 and he has slammed the expenditure as a waste of ratepayers money by some councillors on the former council as their bid to discredit him.

The panel made a finding of misconduct against Cr Hill, reprimanded him and directed that he attend training for six months to improve his understanding of council procedures and practice, and be mentored in his role as a councillor.

Then councillors Jim Fawcett, Mohya Davies and Lorraine Brunt applied for the conduct panel to consider their allegations against Cr Hill. Mrs Davies and Mr Fawcett were not re-elected at last year’s council election, and Cr Brunt was.

“$60,000 of council funds was paid for this panel and there was no justification, and my suggestion would be that Cr Brunt needs to consider reimbursing that cost,” Cr Hill said.

“My belief is that it was a politically motivated vendetta against me.”

Cr Hill said the panel hearing and appeal had been “an incredibly stressful time” for his family and he had spent hundreds of hours preparing his appeal, even submitting a pile of documents three inches thick to VCAT.

Cr Hill will be seeking reimbursement of his VCAT appeal lodgement fee from council, as under the Local Government Act, he said council must indemnify councillors from legal action taken against councillors performing their role in good faith. He said that fee could be up to $1600.

Then councillors Fawcett, Davies and Brunt claimed a letter to the editor by Cr Hill in June 2015 about the municipal precinct had implied a project reference group had already determined the nature and location of new council offices, and that that was wrong.

Cr Hill later wrote a letter apologising for his “poorly worded sentence”.

VCAT was not satisfied the first letter by Cr Hill was dishonest and found his apology addressed the matter.

The conduct panel stated Cr Hill said council officers had provided misleading information in a briefing paper to council about whether a 70 percent differential rate applied to farmers should be extended to hobby or rural lifestyle properties.

In a witness statement to VCAT, council officer Tom Lovass said Cr Hill had said words to the effect the briefing paper was misleading – not council staff.

The VCAT report stated, “Mr Lovass in his statement goes on to say that he took ‘these sorts of things as being part of the job’. It is apparent from his statement that this was in the context of other councillor or councillors seeking to have Mr Lovass complain about Councillor Hill. Councillor Hill did later apologise to the CEO of the Shire.”

The VCAT report found Cr Hill was not accusing council officers of misleading council, but rather “The focus of his criticism was on the information” and did not “necessarily indicate any dishonesty on Councillor Hill’s part”.

Cr Fawcett had also alleged a report written by Cr Hill expressing the minority views of some members of council’s then Rating Strategy Review Steering Committee did not have the support of other members.

That was despite Cr Hill saying multiple members authorised the report. The report criticised Cr Fawcett’s chairing of the committee.

VCAT found the report had the concurrence of at least one other councillor and cleared Cr Hill of any dishonesty.

The VCAT hearing was held on August 18 and 19, 2016, and November 14 and 15, 2016.

Evidence was given by Cr Fawcett, council officer Christine Van Der Ark, council officer Tom Lovass, Cr Hill, Malcolm Davies, a member of the 2014 rating review committee, David Amor and Cr Andrew McEwen.

VCAT member Gerard Butcher cleared Cr Hill of dishonesty, and allegations he was discourteous or intimidated council staff.

“Opposition to recommendations made by members of council staff is not of itself a personal attack,” Mr Butcher wrote.

Cr Hill thanked his counsel, Vincent Morfuni QC, who represented Cr Hill for free. Mr Morfuni was a candidate for South Gippsland Shire Council at the 2016 election.

Cr Brunt told The Star Cr Hill had the services of a “highly skilled silk” at the appeal.

“People are welcome to view the livestreaming of our formal council meeting and make their own assessment of individual councillors’ behaviour and professionalism,” she said.

Mrs Davies was unavailable for comment and Mr Fawcett did not wish to comment before going to print.

Short URL: https://thestar.com.au/?p=22237

Posted by on Aug 15 2017. Filed under Featured, News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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