Ballarat City councillors are in hot water following an administrative blunder which saw them fail to sign a code of conduct document within a one month statutory deadline.
The Courier understands the local government inspectorate has the power to force all nine councillors to step down on September 1, after revelations they did not sign the amended code before the June 4 deadline.
It comes just weeks after revelations a former senior council officer was under investigation by the Independent Broad-Based Anti-Corruption Commission for claims of fraud and misappropriation of funds.
Eight of the nine councillors signed the document in front of the council’s chief executive on Wednesday, almost two months after the deadline stipulated under the act.
Another councillor is yet to sign the document at all.
Councillors who do not make a declaration in writing, that was witnessed by their chief executive officer declaring they abide by their council's councillor code of conduct within one month of that code being adopted are to be disqualified from September 1.
The issue is complicated by the fact that current chief executive Justine Linley did not start in her role until late May and the acting chief executive Frank Dixon has since left the organisation.
Ballarat councillors unanimously voted in favour of the amended legislation at a council meeting on May 4.
The revised code, introduced under the Local Government Act 1989, discourages councillors from making personal attacks on each other and sets out processes for dealing with bad behaviour.
Under the Local Government Amendment councillors have one month from the point their council adopts a new code of conduct to make a declaration in writing, witnessed by their chief executive, that they will abide by the new code.
It is understood there are more than eight Victorian councils are in the same position, with councillors failing to sign the document in time or failing to review their codes of conduct under the Local Government Act deadline.
Ms Linley said she was undertaking an internal investigation into the administrative error and was still in the process of gauging the severity of impact it would have on councillors.
She described the threat of councillors being disqualified by the Local Government Inspectorate as a "gut-wrenching" situation.
She said the council's administrative sector would take full responsibility if there was found to be an error in its processes.
"My understanding is that a number of councils across Victoria have been impacted," she said.
"Councillors did, in good faith sign the code of conduct, but unfortunately it was outside the deadline."
During a visit to Ballarat on Friday, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said the blunder was a matter for the local government minister.
Mr Andrews said he was aware multiple councils, including Ballarat, were impacted after failing to comply with the law.
"This is a very serious matter," he said. "We can't have local government without a set of rules, without a code of conduct or without following the highest of standards."
Mr Andrews said the cost of dismissing councillors and establishing administrators was an "unnecessary expense" and he hoped "common sense would prevail" before September 1.
There are no provisions within the Local Government Act for allowances for councillors who do not make the declaration and the State Government would then have to take appropriate action.
The legislation does not prevent these councillors who failed to make a declaration in this instance from nominating as a candidate at the October elections.
A spokesman for acting local government minister Luke Donnellan said the law was changed last year to improve standards of governance and the conduct of councillors in local governments across Victoria.
“The requirement was simple, clear and councils were advised on multiple occasions about it,” he said. “There is no excuse for a council or councillor being unaware of this requirement.”
Local Government Investigations and Compliance Inspectorate chief municipal inspector David Wolf said the inspectorate is currently assessing all 79 Victorian Councils for compliance with the councillor code of conduct requirements following recent amendments to the legislation.
“We expect to complete this analysis by August 12 and it is not appropriate to comment on specific cases until this analysis is complete,” Mr Wolf said.
“The inspectorate will follow a process to communicate the finding to councils, councillors and the community.”
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