FRANKSTON councillor Steven Hughes has been suspended for three months.
A councillor conduct panel has ruled that Hughes committed an act of serious misconduct. The suspension will be Hughes’ third since his election to council in 2020.
Hughes received a one-month suspension in 2021 after making Facebook posts comparing Frankston Council’s local laws to those in North Korea. He was again suspended for a month at the start of 2023 for new Facebook posts, for deriding council staff, and for sending a heated email to Frankston’s mayor (“Councillor served with second suspension” The Times 31/1/23). Hughes’ social media use has got him into trouble once more.
Last week, a councillor conduct panel published its decision on three misconduct allegations made against Hughes. The panel substantiated one of the allegations.
The allegation proved by the panel related to Hughes’ Facebook posts – he published posts in the wake of a failed councillor conduct panel application he made against former mayor Kris Bolam, and also wrote posts about reimbursement of expenses to councillors.
All of Hughes’ allegations made against the former mayor were dismissed by a conduct panel in 2022. The panel decision published last week read that Hughes’ subsequent Facebook posts imputed that Bolam had “intimidated” Hughes, “engaged in the behaviour alleged by Cr Hughes in his unsuccessful councillor conduct panel”, and “engaged in unacceptable behaviour”.
The panel wrote that Hughes’ posts about councillor reimbursement contained a “false and mischievous” allegation. “He implies that the other councillors are motivated for financial gain and political profit,” the panel wrote. “Cr Hughes’ post was wholly irresponsible. His post has the risk of misleading the municipality about the motivations of the other councillors and proper basis of reimbursement claims.”
The panel wrote that Hughes’ behaviour constitutes “serious misconduct” because it is “continued or repeated misconduct by a councillor after a finding of misconduct has already been made in respect of the councillor by an arbiter or by a councillor conduct panel.”
Hughes’ suspension will be effective following Frankston Council’s next meeting. He has not been directed to make apologies for his conduct. The panel decision read that Hughes “has not demonstrated any insight or acceptance of responsibility let alone remorse”.
The two dismissed allegations related to a Facebook post about rates, and about comments made to the Frankston Times.
An article published by The Times on 23 August last year read ‘Hughes told The Times that he believes last year’s arbitration process was a “disgrace”.’ (“Ratepayers billed for costly councillor conduct clash The Times 23/8/22)
The panel wrote that Hughes gave evidence that he had “used the word ‘disgrace’ in relation to the arbiter decision. However, he stated he told the journalist that the decision of his fellow councillors to refer the matter to an arbiter was a ‘disgrace’. He denied using the words to describe the arbiter personally”.
The panel wrote that there was no written or oral evidence from the journalist, and that the word “disgrace” was “not placed in context within a larger quotation”.
The comments were sent to The Times by Hughes in an email on 19 August. The full sentence provided by Hughes was “Last years arbitration was a disgrace”. The remainder of the paragraph in question was included in the story. The Times was not contacted by the panel during the hearing process.
Hughes was contacted by The Times for comment.