A complaint was made that a councillor was accepting bribes in the form of purported gifts in exchange for awarding community grants to a prominent local businessman. Due to the seriousness of the allegations, IBAC decided to investigate. As part of Operation Charnley, IBAC interviewed relevant witnesses and reviewed the council’s conflict of interest and councillor code of conduct policies, and their community grants procedure.
While the allegation could not be substantiated, IBAC identified concerns regarding the conduct of individuals in public office, as well as broader issues which caused the council to be vulnerable to corruption, including:
- conflicts of interest not being reported and a lack of knowledge about when a conflict of interest or perceived conflict of interest exists
- behaviours inconsistent with the councillor code of conduct.
IBAC recommended the Minister for Local Government consider providing the council with advice that it thoroughly review its policies, procedures and training in the following areas to ensure that the vulnerabilities identified in IBAC’s Operation Charnley have been addressed, and that councillors fully understand their obligations in relation to:
- councillor code of conduct
- conflict of interest
- gifts benefits and hospitality
IBAC requested that the Minister provide a report to IBAC on the aforementioned recommendations within six months stating:
- whether or not they have taken action as recommended by IBAC
- if they have not taken action or do not intend to take the recommended action, the reason for not taking or intending to take the action.
In December 2016, the council CEO provided a response to the Minister for Local Government, with key actions the council is taking summarised as follows:
Conflict of interest
The municipal council engaged an external provider to conduct a comprehensive introduction to the requirements of the Local Government Act 1989, with particular emphasis on conflicts of interest provisions. All councillors were reminded of their obligations under the legislation and the importance of recognising both potential and perceived conflicts. Following this half day session, an additional session was conducted to provide a further opportunity for councillors who may have missed the first session or felt that they required further information or wished to discuss personal circumstances in greater depth. All councillors were encouraged to attend at least one of the sessions, with a number of councillors taking the opportunity to attend both.
The importance of recognising and declaring all forms of conflict of interest has been further enhanced for this term of council with the introduction of a Conflict of Interest Declaration. This Declaration is required to be filled in by each councillor and signed at every Assembly of Council to keep a record of council attendance for each individual briefing and whether any conflicts have been recorded and resolved accordingly. This Declaration prompts all councillors to consider any potential conflicts on a weekly basis while also enabling the organisation to maintain records of attendance and whether any conflicts have been declared.
Gifts, benefits and hospitality
The organisation’s councillor code of conduct requires any gift (including benefit or hospitality) valued at over $20 to be declared and registered with the organisation. The legislative requirements relating to gifts and benefits were further reinforced during the training conducted by the provider in 2016.
In 2016 the council conducted a workshop to commence the review of the councillor code of conduct. A key component of this review was discussion around how not only gifts, benefits and hospitality must be handled, but also the importance of declaring any offers of gifts, benefits and hospitality to ensure full transparency.
The importance of these requirements will continue to be reinforced as council continues their review of the code of conduct.
Behaviour of persons in a position of public office
In both the training sessions held in 2016, emphasis was placed on what it means to be a councillor in terms of requirements of public office as defined under the Local Government Act 1989. Areas of focus included councillor and staff interaction protocols, community expectations of the role, and the need to act with integrity at all times.
The councillor code of conduct review workshop held in 2016 provided further opportunities to explore what this means in the municipal context and councillors were required to read and provide input into each individual section of the code. Further workshops will be held ahead of the endorsement of the revised code.
In addition to the work outlined above, the importance of the code of conduct principles will be further reinforced at a council planning workshop in 2017. This workshop will provide opportunity to emphasise the role of councillor and the expectations and requirements demanded by not only the Local Government Act 1989, but the broader community.
Annual refresher training in the areas previously identified will also be held for councillors throughout the duration of their term. These sessions will also provide opportunity for further reinforcement of code of conduct principles.