Costly closed-door decision highlights need for transparency

By Harley Dennett

June 22, 2016

An investigation triggered by a single complaint about an interest charge levied by a local council has resulted in a damning report about transparency practices and on ongoing investigation of the sector.

Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass, who earlier this month also produced a blistering report on local government corruption by taking a sample of cases to paint a broader picture, has approached to the issue of decision-making transparency similarly.

The VO investigation of Casey City Council began after 37 ratepayers were levied with a special charge for the cost of sealing an unmade road adjacent to their properties. Each owner would be liable for between $15,000 and $20,000 plus interest if paid in instalments over 15 years.

When the ratepayers were first consulted about the scheme, the council told them the interest rate would be approximately 4.25%. The special charge scheme was declared in open council, but in a closed session at the same meeting, the interest rate was increased to 7.5%, by which time the owners’ right to object to the scheme had expired. The ratepayers, and Glass, were incensed. In her report Glass wrote:

“This very important decision directly affecting ratepayers was made at a closed council meeting. My officers started looking at how widespread this practice was and, as a result, I have launched a separate own motion investigation into transparency in local government decision making.

“This case illustrates some overarching themes of confused or arbitrary process and poor communication with ratepayers. These undermine public trust in the level of government closest to most: their local council.”

The Andrews government responded on Wednesday morning by announcing it would appoint a short term monitor to examine and oversee governance at Casey City Council.

Glass however is on a mission to reveal how widespread bad practices in local government go. The wider issue of transparency in council decision making is being addressed in a separate VO own motion investigation.

“But in any event, this case is testament to the fact that small complaints can make a big difference,” Glass added.

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