Building integrity in the local government sector

David WolfChief Municipal Inspector David Wolf leads the Local Government Investigations and Compliance Inspectorate, the dedicated integrity agency for Victorian councils. In this article he explains the Inspectorate’s role in handling complaints and dispelling myths about its work, particularly during busy council election periods.

The Local Government Investigations and Compliance Inspectorate works to promote transparency, integrity and accountability in the local government sector. To put it simply, a major part of our role is ensuring councils operate well, improving that operation where we can and making sure councils govern to a level that meets community expectations.

Since its establishment in 2009, the Inspectorate’s primary role is to investigate offences under the Local Government Act 1989 and to monitor councils’ governance and compliance with the Act. The office has the responsibility to investigate concerns related to council operations including criminal or corruption offences involving councillors, senior council officers or any person subject to conflict of interest provisions.

We receive complaints about issues including:

  • corruption
  • misuse of position
  • conflict of interest
  • disclosure of confidential information
  • electoral offences such as distribution of unauthorised material.

An important task Inspectorate staff have is to inform councillors and senior council staff on not only the legislative requirements they need to obey but the impact in their local community of negative perceptions about council decisions and actions.

Visiting nearly 50 of Victoria’s 79 councils and presenting at various community forums over the past 12 months has given me the chance to dispel many myths and misunderstandings about topics such as conflict of interest, how the Inspectorate handles complaints and our involvement, if any, in council decision making.

Our involvement in complaints about council decision making is a key area that many people are unclear about. We receive dozens of enquiries every quarter from ratepayers asking us to review particular council decisions. Unless a breach of the legislation has occurred, councillors have been elected to make decisions on areas such as budget allocation and planning matters that impact on the community, and this is not something my office reviews.

Recently, I’ve discussed with regional and rural councillors their ability to participate as members of community organisations as well as involvement in decisions of council, without triggering conflict of interest provisions in the Act. This is a greatly misunderstood area and also a key source of complaints from ratepayers and residents.

Preventing corruption in the local government sector also involves collaborating with other integrity agencies and the Inspectorate is strengthening relationships with IBAC, the Victorian Ombudsman and the Victorian Auditor-General’s Office. This close engagement with other agencies has involved streamlined referral of complaints between agencies, joint presentations to the local government sector and collaborative work on internal controls in local councils.

Working in partnership with the Victorian Electoral Commission, the Inspectorate also conducted its most comprehensive program of complaints analysis, investigations and compliance checks during the 2016 council elections. 

Hailed as some of the largest contested elections in recent years, last year’s elections saw 2135 candidates nominating for 637 vacancies, with many candidates standing for the first time. The Inspectorate, as a dedicated integrity agency for local government, increased resources to deal with the expected influx of enquiries, and a planned program of candidate eligibility and other compliance checks. A report on the Inspectorate’s work during the elections provides analysis of the data collected during the election period, case studies on completed and ongoing investigations and opportunities for improvements in the electoral system.

The Inspectorate handled about 2000 enquiries and fielded more than 400 complaints during this time, with 32 formal warnings issued and 21 investigations completed. Two candidates were investigated and prosecuted for unlawful nomination, as well as the identification of two candidates for unlawful nomination, resulting in the removal of those ineligible candidates prior to voting. The most positive outcome for the community was the Inspectorate’s ability to deal swiftly with complaints and investigate serious issues, therefore protecting the integrity of our council elections.

With a continued focus on guidance and education over a reactive role, the Inspectorate hopes to see a reduction in serious, substantiated complaints against council staff and elected representatives. Our investigative and compliance teams will continue developing our council networks and helping bring about change where possible, further improving the integrity and public perceptions of local government. 

For more information on the Inspectorate, visit www.lgici.vic.gov.au