Monday, May 23, 2022

Misconduct finding against La Trobe councillor

Latrobe City councillor, Melissa Ferguson, has been ordered to apologise to her colleagues and undergo training after a Council Conduct Panel issued a finding of misconduct against her.

The Panel heard that Cr Ferguson (pictured) had behaved in an “aggressive, intimidating, and disrespectful manner” towards fellow councillors and members of Council staff, which the complainants claimed created a risk to their health and safety, saying her actions constituted bullying.

In one reported incident at a Council meeting in July last year, the Panel was told that Cr Ferguson interjected “in a loud and aggressive manner” to reprimand the then General Manager, Suzanne Miller, as she attempted to answer a question.

In a second meeting incident in August 2021, it was alleged that Cr Ferguson made a number of defamatory statements about a community member, a former Councillor and the then General Manager of the Latrobe City Council.

The Panel was told that at the same meeting, Cr Ferguson alluded that funds for bushfire recovery had been secretly earmarked for other projects; and also accused two fellow councillors of interfering with the operation of the South Ward of Council. The councillor also reportedly threatened to refer matters to the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission (IBAC).

In support of the misconduct application, former Council General Manager, Suzanne Miller spoke at length about the incidents, saying she had resigned from her role as a direct result of the events – specifically, because she could “…no longer ensure the safety of relevant Council staff in performing their roles”.

Ms Miller told the Panel she had been the victim of a “…tirade of abuse initiated by the Mayor…”. She said she had been called a liar and accused of not completing tasks assigned in her role as General Manager.

“Ms Miller told the Panel she interjected whilst the respondent was talking, effectively speaking out of turn to try and answer the questions and allegations that were being made about her,” Council agenda papers stated.

In her evidence to the Panel, Ms Miller conceded that the behaviour of the respondent (in relation to the July incident) was not bullying as defined in the Act but was “more appropriately defined as speaking in an abusive manner”.

Ms Miller confirmed that she had spoken to the respondent on less than five occasions since she commenced her role as a Councillor in October 2020, and that she did not attempt to speak to the respondent after the Briefing Meeting to resolve any issues that resulted from the exchange.

Ms Miller told the Panel said she “did not feel safe enough” to talk to the respondent.

Councillor Dan Clancey gave evidence in support of the application, confirming that the July altercation in question “came out of left field and was totally unexpected” and that it was
an exchange predominantly between the then Mayor (Cr Gibson) and the then General Manager (Ms Miller).

“Councillor Clancey told the Panel the respondent said no more than two sentences and that those two sentences did not amount to bullying and did not leave him feeling any negative impact in terms of his safety,” Council agenda papers stated.

“Councillor Clancey did submit that the way in which the respondent spoke was disrespectful towards Ms Miller, but that it did not amount to bullying as defined in the Act.”

Councillor Tracey Lund gave evidence in support of the application, telling the Panel of the struggle she continued to face talking about the Briefing Meeting.

“Throughout her oral evidence Cr Lund was teary and visibly distressed, needing to pause to collect her thoughts,” Council agenda papers stated.

When questioned about the July incident, Cr Lund agreed with witnesses regarding the specific words spoken by the respondent, but said the exchange left her feeling unsafe and vulnerable, so much so that she requested all Briefing Meetings be recorded moving forward.

Councillor Lund told the Panel it was the role of the Mayor/Meeting Chair to ensure the safety of the meeting participants, and that the then Mayor had failed to do this. As a result, Cr Lund felt “…unsafe and reluctant to speak up or participate in any meaningful way for fear of being attacked or shut down”.

When asked by the Panel whether she had discussed the July incident with the respondent, Cr Lund said that she had not, and that she had not spoken to the respondent much since being elected to Council in October 2020.

The applicants’ appointed representative told the Panel he had never seen such behaviour in his years with the Council and that whilst he himself did not speak directly to the respondent after the Meeting regarding her behaviour, he and his fellow applicants thought the matter was so serious that they had no option but to lodge an Application for a Panel hearing.

In response to the complaint, Cr Ferguson submitted that at the Council Briefing Meeting in July she was interrupted by Ms Miller when she was seeking to clarify the leasing arrangements of a Council-run building that had previously been leased to an organisation that supported victims of domestic violence.

In relation to the allegations of bullying, Cr Ferguson said she did not believe her conduct had constituted bullying.

“Instead, the respondent believed she was simply exercising her right to ask questions and be heard without interruption,” her submission stated.

The respondent called two fellow councillors as witnesses in support of her defence to the bullying allegation.

Councillor Gibson told the Panel that Cr Ferguson was “passionate and animated” in her approach at the Briefing Meeting, but not to the extent that Ms Miller was in her involvement in the incident.

Cr Gibson confirmed the respondent’s account of what was said, also stating that “…if anyone should be pinged for bullying, it should be her…” referring to Ms Miller, the Panel heard.

Councillor Gibson went on to say that the respondent had called her after the Council briefing meeting distraught by the exchange, feeling bullied because she tried to do her job and ask questions and was then subject to the interjection of Ms Miller.

Councillor Harriman also spoke in support of the respondent, confirming his attendance at the Council Briefing Meeting, and also confirming the respondent’s version of events that took place.

When asked about the incident at the Briefing Meeting, Cr Harriman told the Panel that the debate regarding the leasing issue was nowhere near as robust as other debates that had taken place and that he himself was equally as frustrated as the respondent with the way that the Council Officers had dealt with the leasing issue.

In presenting its findings, the Panel said it was concerned with Cr Ferguson’s lack of awareness of various key components of the role of a councillor, particularly around meeting procedures and operational policies and procedures.

In a statement issue this morning, Council said it had considered a report in relation to a Councillor Code of Conduct matter, under the requirements of the Local Government Act 2020 its meeting last night.

“A report was tabled which details the independent panel’s findings into a Councillor conduct matter. The Act establishes a Councillor conduct framework that provides a clear hierarchy for the management of Councillor conduct matters.”

“The correct process was followed in strict accordance with the Act and the outcomes will be implemented. The matter has now been finalized,” said Latrobe City Council, Chief Executive Officer Steven Piasente.

Latrobe City Mayor, Kellie O’Callaghan said it was important that all Councillors uphold the standard of behaviour defined in the Council’s code of conduct.

“Our community has put a lot of trust in us, as a Council, to lead in a thoughtful, fair, safe and transparent way,” the Mayor said.

“I am confident that all Councillors will work together effectively into the future and will support Councillor Ferguson.

“This will allow us to continue to deliver for our community, through the agreed work within the Council Plan and to forge ahead with new opportunities with a focus on our local economy, transition of industries and our valued and highly skilled workforce, along with the ongoing recovery from recent emergency incidents and the persistent impacts of COVID-19.

“We will continue to leverage on the significant developments and growth of past years, as we work together and with our community to transition and transform our City.”

The Panel directed Cr Ferguson to attend further training to strengthen her understanding of the role and responsibilities of being a Councillor. In addition, the Panel recommended Council create a New Councillor handbook and a mentoring system be established to ensure new councillors are supported in their transition into the role.

Click to view the full Council Agenda.

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