Ombudsman: ‘perk of the job’ culture among councils

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A culture of entitlement among some council workers must be dealt with before a major scandal erupts, says Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass.

An Investigation into the misuse of council resources tabled in the Victorian Parliament uses examples from three separate protected disclosure complaints to demonstrate that council property and resources are at risk of being seen as available for the private benefit of council employees.

The investigation highlights the risk posed by a lack of effective policies, monitoring and enforcement by councils to prevent poor cultures and behaviour taking hold.

"The amounts involved are not huge in comparison with recent corruption scandals," Ms Glass said.

"But it is precisely the fact that they do not involve big sums that makes the wrongdoing so pernicious; local officials who either do not recognise that their conduct is wrong but see it as a perk of the job, or who think they can get away with it because no one will notice.

"And all too often people do not notice, and the risk escalates of a minor misuse of public funds becoming a major one."

The matters contained in the investigation occurred in metropolitan, regional and outer metropolitan councils and involved:

  • a contractor paving a council officer’s mother’s driveway
  • a council officer using a council fuel card to fill up his private vehicle for two years
  • council officers buying machinery and equipment with ratepayer funds for their personal use.

‘I am tabling this report in Parliament to draw attention to what appears to be an endemic problem within local government," Ms Glass said.

"Despite codes of conduct requiring officials to act with integrity and avoid conflicts of interest, and despite the many people working honestly in the sector, too many people still do not recognise that these codes apply to them, or simply do not care.

"Compliance and enforcement of codes of conduct is inconsistent, and often relies on whistleblowers coming forward, rather than good governance and supervision."

There is already significant guidance available for councils on how such issues can be avoided and healthy workplace cultures fostered. The Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission published its review of the operation of local council depots in May 2015.

‘Too often, bad or suspect behaviour is not challenged out of fear of reprisal – including for contractors the fear of losing council business, which is no small matter where local councils are the largest customer in the region," Ms Glass said.

"Councils have an obligation to ratepayers to shore up their culture and procedures, before small private misuse becomes a large public scandal,’ she said.

Deborah Glass is not available for interview.

Read the: Investigation into the misuse of council resources

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