A local government arbiter found that Darebin Councillor, Tim Laurence, engaged in misconduct (15/10/22). Cr Laurence has been suspended from his role for two weeks. Within three months: (1) He is required to repeat his Councillor Induction Training; and (2) He also "...must deliver a public apology at a Council Meeting, in which he notes that an arbiter has found that he has engaged in misconduct by disparaging his fellow Councillors, and apologising sincerely for that behaviour" [paras 3-4].
The arbiter assessed a written complaint by Cr Susanne Newton (Greens) against Cr Tim Laurence (ALP) according to two standards from Schedule 1 of the Local Government (Governance and Integrity) Regulations 2020 [para. 5]:
1. Treatment of others
A Councillor must, in performing the role of a Councillor, treat other Councillors, members of Council staff, the municipal community and members of the public with dignity, fairness, objectivity, courtesy and respect, including by ensuring that the Councillor—
(d) in considering the diversity of interests and needs of the municipal community, treats all persons with respect and has due regard for their opinions, beliefs, rights and responsibilities.
4. Councillor must not discredit or mislead Council or public
(1) In performing the role of a Councillor, a Councillor must ensure that their behaviour does not bring discredit upon the Council.
These are the reasons given by the arbiter for the sanctions he imposed on Cr Laurence:
The sanctions include a period of suspension, for two reasons.
First, if I do not suspend Cr Laurence, I consider he will continue to discredit Council through the same kind of misconduct I have found he engaged in: in his evidence and submissions, Cr Laurence's attitude was uncompromising, with little to show that he understood the concerns arising from his actions, or his obligations under the standards (which his post-hearing submissions conceded he did not read until after the hearing).
Second, because the behaviour referred to in allegation 12 demands condemnation and punishment… [paras. 15-16].
Allegation 12 relates to the arbiter's assessment that an email sent by Cr Laurence "was intended to coerce Cr Newton into withdrawing from [a] vote."
The arbitrator's general description of Cr Laurence's statements is telling:
A consistent theme in Cr Laurence's argument (and I am summarising its effect, rather than his words) was that his misconduct must be understood with reference to the alleged poor behaviour of other Councillors, and that he had no ability to hold them to account without engaging in misconduct himself.
If local government were the wild west, that might be true, but sections 143 and 154 of the Act provide to the contrary [paras. 17-18].
There is a lot of latitude for what is regarded as 'robust debate', under the Governance Regulations, rather than misconduct. The relevant legal precedents are discussed in the arbiter's decision.
Even though the arbiter had to classify some of Cr Laurence’s statements as robust debate due to this precedent, it is clear from his comments that he is unimpressed. The arbiter makes reference to individual statements that are “dramatic” [para. 40]; “unpleasant” [para. 52]; “unproductive” [para. 63]; “inaccurate and prone to mislead” [para. 97]; and “unhelpful” [para. 100].
The table below is comprised of extracts from the arbiter’s reasons and findings in relation to proven misconduct. You are encouraged to go to the original source for his full discussion, which is available here: https://tinyurl.com/mr3n7py3
Statement by Cr Laurence (in red):
Arbiter's statements about proven misconduct
[Cr Laurence’s statement that] ‘under the influence of certain councillors the CEO and officers have failed to bring objective options to the council chambers regarding the redevelopment’ of Reservoir Leisure Centre.
Through alleging improper conduct, Cr Laurence breached standard 1 and sub-standard 4(1): he was unfair, discourteous and disrespectful, and brought discredit upon Council.
Allegation 3 is proven.
… Cr Laurence is also reported as stating that his and others being excluded from the CEO performance committee was ‘solely because Cr [Trent] McCarthy has long history of being a “man child” when it comes to power and he will not share power with those he considers not adequately obedient to him.’
This breaches standard 1, and allegation 4 is proven.
In a Facebook comment that he made on 30 March 2022, Cr Laurence refers to ‘interesting instances where body language reveals delusions [of] power,’ and stated that at the previous night's Council meeting, Cr Susan Rennie had ‘used hand gestures to signal to Cr [Gaetano] Greco to sit down,’ stating words to the effect that Cr Rennie had ordered Cr Greco to ‘sit like a dog,’ and that Cr Rennie had treated Cr Greco ‘like an animal.’
I find that allegation 5 is proven: suggesting a fellow Councillor is deluded brings discredit on Council.
This remains an unsafe workplace. The meetings seen by the public show some of the tensions but the private meetings organised by the Mayor and Deputy Mayor end up in naked aggression. The CEO quickly walked out on one of these meetings – so she leave (sic) Darebin and not be drawn back as a WorkCover witness. In this climate of bias and ‘us and them’ any code of conduct is unlikely to be pursued internally with impartiality.
Alleging that other Councillors' behaviour caused a CEO to depart clearly brings Council into discredit, and is disrespectful to other Councillors, as is suggesting that their behaviour has created an unsafe workplace.
I find that allegation 9 is proven.
Pork barrelling which is a form of political corruption and public maladministration in my view distorts the outcomes for the majority in Darebin on the issue of aquatic facilities ... That is why I raise issues with tens of thousands of residents before I draft Notices of Motion so that I avoid the bias and limitations that come from factionally controlled consultations. I have formed my own views on council matters [in the past].... And I am still doing the same with a Greens factionally controlled Council.
Under Part 4 of the Act, Councils have extensive budgetary and financial processes planning obligations: in practice, it means Council expenditure does not occur on Councillor whims, but based on formal processes set-down in the legislation, which includes a significant level of community and Councillor consultation.
In the hearing, Cr Laurence acknowledged those processes had occurred, but suggested that they are usually unreliable because the consultations are ‘factionally controlled’. As best I can understand it, Cr Laurence justifies that conclusion by circular logic (ie. there is something wrong with the process if his desired outcome did not result).
If Cr Laurence merely stated that "Council expenditure is unfairly focused on Northcote", or "Reservoir residents are getting hard done by the Greens majority", or even "my colleagues do not care about Reservoir residents and should hang their head in shame", that would be robust debate. Alleging corruption or breaking the law is not.
I find that allegation 11 is proven.
[In an email] Titled ‘Potential breach of Local Government Act and code of conduct,’ Cr Laurence stated in his first paragraph that:
The concerns of many South West Ward residents is that in relation to the Thornbury Park Heritage Study there was an incomplete declaration of the two conflicts of interest of councillor and that the councillor in question could benefit materially or suffer a loss depending on the decision.
And in the final paragraph, that the conflict was a ‘known conflict of interest’, and that Council staff ‘lack the influence to stop a repeat breach of the LG Act’ at the Council meeting scheduled for that evening, and which proposed to send a proposed planning scheme amendment to panel stage (see Item 8.2 on the Agenda).
Even if the Minister could not (or was unlikely to) intervene in the manner requested, I am satisfied that Cr Laurence's inclusion of Cr Newton [in the] email was intended to coerce Cr Newton into withdrawing from the vote (through disincentivising her participation), or was, to use Cr Laurence's language in another allegation, a form of "payback" because Cr Newton had a different view from him, and he wished to cause her discomfort.
Councillors must treat one another with respect. A Councillor who causes or attempts to cause another Councillor to withdraw from a decision, through improper pressure or making a threat (which is the effect of Cr Laurence's email), despite that Councillor's entitlement to participate, is not respectful.
I find allegation 12 proven.
Media Reports on Cr Laurence's Misconduct
Cara Waters, 'If local government were the Wild Wild West' : Darebin councillor suspended after misconduct. The Age, 14 November 2022.
Link to the full story here: https://tinyurl.com/3b22ywh5
Link to the full story here: Darebin councillor Tim Laurence suspended after he called deputy mayor 'man child', Herald Sun, 15 November 2022 Link to full story here: https://tinyurl.com/bdctkhrc