Watchdog barks at councils

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A REPORT released by the Victorian Ombudsman this month revealed 71 complaints about Frankston Council were made to the watchdog over a 12-month period but The Times has found just over 15 per cent of complaints were referred to council.

The Ombudsman’s annual report released on Monday 16 October listed the number of complaints about each of Victoria’s 79 councils received by the watchdog during the 2016-17 financial year.

Frankston was listed as the 21st most complained about council to the state watchdog that has the power to investigate state government departments and agencies, councils and statutory authorities.

The Times asked the Ombudsman’s office how many of the 71 complaints about Frankston Council were investigated and substantiated.

A statement provided from Ombudsman Deborah Glass said complaints about councils “range from issues such as parking infringements, rates and how complaints are handled, to improper conduct and poor governance”.

“We encourage councils to ‘learn to love complaints’ as each complaint is free feedback about what someone thinks,” Ms Glass said.

“We have also issued a good practice guide for complaint handling in local government to help local councils do it better, as all too often, we see complaints about how a council has handled someone’s complaint.

“We have also recommended that the government change the law so it is easier for agencies to apologise without exposing themselves to legal action. Saying sorry is often the most effective way councils and other public bodies can resolve a dispute with a member of the public.

“In the many cases where someone has a legitimate grievance, an apology can be a powerful remedy.”

Frankston Council confirmed the Ombudsman’s office had contacted council about 11 complaints in 2016-17.

Council acting CEO Tim Frederico said: “Of the 11 complaints explored, no findings were made against council. Complaints related to rates, community safety and planning matters.”

Mr Frederico said Ombudsman officers visited council in April as part of the watchdog’s “local councils relationship building exercise”.

“There were no visits from Ombudsman Victoria officers in relation to any complaints, enquiries or investigations.”

The acting CEO said council “would fully cooperate” with the Ombudsman’s office in the event of any formal investigation.

The Ombudsman’s 2015-16 annual report lists 88 complaints made about Frankston Council in the year before the latest report.

An Investigation into the transparency of local government decision making report published by the Ombudsman in December last year criticised Frankston Council for holding a special meeting behind closed doors “to avoid embarrassment” when discussing councillors’ social media use during the previous council term (“‘Secret’ meeting slammed”, The Times 19/12/16).

This month’s 2016-17 annual report listed neighbouring Kingston Council having 97 complaints made to the Ombudsman and Mornington Peninsula Shire council having 107 complaints.

There are no figures from the Ombudsman confirming how many complaints were investigated and substantiated.

Kingston Council CEO John Nevins confirmed the Ombudsman’s office contacted that council about 11 complaints and all were resolved to the watchdog’s satisfaction.

Mornington Peninsula Shire governance manager Joseph Spiteri declined to disclose how many of the 107 complaints about the shire to the watchdog had been referred to the shire

“Council is unable to comment on the specific nature of the complaints, the degree of investigation undertaken by the Ombudsman’s office and the specific findings of the Ombudsman,” he said.

Casey Council was the most complained about council in 2016-17 with 139 complaints.

First published in the Frankston Times – 30 October 2017

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