All eyes are now on Ballarat councillors as they react to a scathing report of alleged nepotism by senior officers and what steps the elected body must take to address the issue.
Ballarat councillors say they are in shock this afternoon, declaring their devastation at the bombshell ombudsman's report which accused two senior staffers of misusing their position to hire friends.
The 79-page report is highly critical of council chief executive Justine Linley and director of infrastructure and environment Terry Demeo.
The Courier has attempted to call all councillors today for their reaction, however, some have been unwilling to speak to this point.
Cr Amy Johnson was the first to react to the report which has been two years in the making by the State Government watchdog.
"The council employs the CEO to lead the City of Ballarat and lead by example. This report has clearly brought this into question," Cr Johnson said.
"The people of Ballarat deserve and rightfully expect that the CEO of our council will act appropriately at all times.
"The Ballarat Council is responsible for employing the CEO and we must be able to expect that the role will be fulfilled without reproach.
"I'm deeply disappointed and concerned by the findings of this report."
Cr Grant Tillett said "it would be inappropriate for me to make comment. I need time to digest what is in the report".
"I'm devastated and disappointed and depressed about it, but that's as far as I can go."
Cr Samantha McIntosh demurred on providing an immediate response, beyond agreeing the findings of the report were "devastating" for the council.
Cr McIntosh said she would provide a more detailed response to the report on Friday.
Cr Daniel Moloney also deferred to the the right of the mayor to respond on behalf of council, saying while there are many issues that need examining in the report, it would not be helpful for him to speak out at this early point, and he would respond more fully later.
Cr Jim Rinaldi stressed how disappointing the report was for councillors and staff, and told The Courier it was now important for due process to be followed and natural justice to take its course.
Cr Rinaldi emphasised the councillors, as elected representatives, had a duty of care for every person involved, and reminded all staff they had access to counselling and assistance if they required it.
"We have to be careful how we treat people here," Mr Rinaldi said.
Cr Mark Harris called it "a Greek tragedy on many levels".
"In reality the ombudsman's report and process is inquisitorial - you are presented with findings rather than allegations, which would normally then become part of a sub judice process. We (as councillors) end up having to comment on the findings," he said.
"In some ways, someone coming in to shake up an organisation, you might expect them to bring people they knew with them, from one perspective.
"But what's said in the report, we can't question the veracity of that. There's nothing to be done about it; and our commitment to it (the report) must be robust and quick."
A spokesperson for Mayor Ben Taylor said he would not comment on the issue.
Councillors Belinda Coates and Des Hudson did not return phone calls from The Courier.
The council response
Earlier today, the council released a statement. In it, it said that both Ms Linley and Mr Demeo would be taking leave and that Neville Ivey would act as interim chief executive for the time being.
"The City of Ballarat is aware of the Victorian Ombudsman's report released this morning containing allegations that two of its senior officers may have acted improperly."
"The City of Ballarat is committed to making Ballarat a better place for all and continuing to deliver for the community of Ballarat. Our codes of conduct also clearly outline the high ethical standards expected of Councillors and council staff.
"The Council is deeply concerned and disappointed by the allegations and the findings of the Ombudsman's report. Such allegations do not align with the City of Ballarat values and governance practices
"To ensure fair and due process, Council CEO Justine Linley, is on leave while the Council is considering its formal response to the Ombudsman's report. Mr Demeo will also be on leave after today.
"Mr Neville Ivey has been appointed Acting CEO while Ms Linley is on leave.
"The wellbeing and welfare of all our employees remains a priority and we have offered our employee assistance program (EAP) to all of our staff.
"While the Council is considering its formal response, it would be inappropriate to comment further and as such, the Council will not be making any further comment on the matter."
So, what now?
Looking forward, the group of nine councillors will now have to decide their next course of action.
It is possible a special council meeting could be called as soon as Monday to give Ms Linley an opportunity to respond to the allegations. A 48-hour notice period most be given before any meetings.
From that meeting, councillors will then have to decide the next course of action required in relation to Ms Linley's future at the council.
Accusations in the report against senior officer Terry Demeo would need to be administered by the acting chief executive Neville Ivey in due course.
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