The V/Line board is in disarray, with two recent resignations adding to the beleaguered rail operator's woes.
By the end of this month there will be just three directors - the minimum allowed for a transport corporation - down from six at this time last year.
The news comes at a time of unprecedented scrutiny for the transport operator, which is responsible for thousands of daily commutes between Ballarat and Melbourne.
A V/Line spokesperson said director Liz Roadley had resigned in March, then after repeated inquiries confirmed another director - whose identity they did not confirm - had also stepped down and was due to finish on May 31. Both finished well before their terms were due to end.
The former deputy chair Craig Cook died last September and has not been replaced.
The board moves mark yet more tumult for V/Line in 12 months dominated by the dismissal of former CEO James Pinder last October.
That followed hearings held by Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission (IBAC) looking into serious misconduct.
The ongoing inquiry, known as Operation Esperance, heard how Mr Pinder allegedly collected cash payments of up to $10,000 from executives at transport cleaning company Transclean - something the former CEO claimed was done while he was in a secret gambling syndicate.
Mr Pinder's former Metro Trains colleague Peter Bollas later admitted he had received up to $150,000 in corrupt payments.
An interim CEO, Gary Liddle, is now in place at V/Line but the latest upheaval will only increase scrutiny on the process for overseeing an organisation that has been the focus of two major corruption probes in the past five years.
V/Line was also sharply criticised by the Victorian auditor for its role in the botched Murray Basin Freight Rail project last year. Locally it has faced fierce criticism for delays in its response and communications about the Lydiard Street rail crossing closure following a crash last May.
This month, rail replacement coaches were put in place for 11 days on the Ballarat Line only three months after a new timetable was introduced as a result of $601.2 million upgrade works.
Mr Pinder, a former rolling stock manager with Metro Trains with limited executive experience, was appointed CEO in late 2016.
At the same time another IBAC corruption probe, Operation Lansdowne, was underway. On its release in 2017, it said there was "unfettered cronyism" among senior V/Line executives.
The board which recruited Mr Pinder were appointed on the recommendation of then minister of public transport Jacinta Allan in 2015.
The director for the Centre for Public Integrity Geoffrey Watson told The Courier the current situation highlighted serious issues with the way public boards often work.
Mr Watson, a staunch advocate of instilling a nationwide anti-corruption body, said: "The board would have been responsible for the appointment of the CEO and this is such a debacle that you would expect that some board members, especially any who had a particularly close relationship with the CEO, would resign."
"If there was a strong connection between the government and the board, then the relevant minister should go as well - because the minister should be taking responsibility for maladministration that occurs in his or her department."
"That was the traditional role, but that no longer seems to apply in Australia. Ministerial responsibility is greatly diminished."
He also said board appointees with links to political parties proved problematic "time and time and time again", but said he did not have enough detail on V/Line directors to comment on them.
Ms Roadley was appointed in December 2019, well after Mr Pinder was recruited. The only member of the currently listed board involved in Mr Pinder's appointment is the chair Gabrielle Bell.
In a statement Ms Allan, now the minister for public transport infrastructure, said the board in 2015 had been put in place "in line with established appointment guidelines".
ANALYSIS: The role of the board and the CEO
As a state-owned enterprise, V/Line legally must have a board.
According to the Transport Integration Act, the role of the board of directors is to oversee the "management of the affairs" of the organisation. In theory, and mostly in practice, very little of that will be hands-on, with most of the day-to-day operation of the company being led and directed by the chief executive of the day and their leadership team.
In the hearings held last October, the counsel for IBAC probed carefully the role of the board and Mr Pinder's dealings with them - putting a spotlight on how decisions taken by directors can be steered by the information presented to them by the executive team.
The V/Line board was overhauled a short time after state elections in 2014, with several new appointments. There were six new directors for the start of the 2015/16 financial year, a complete change from the previous year.
According to the then annual report, directors were "appointed by the Governor-in-Council on recommendation of the Minister for Public Transport, made after consultation with the Treasurer."
They are each appointed for a three-year term, and can be re-elected.
The cast of directors has changed since then - with the exception of the current chair Gabrielle Bell. Among the appointees was Jeroen Weimar - now with a high-profile role in the Department of Health - who acted as chair until he was recruited to the newly formed Department of Transport.
There have been three recent casual vacancies from the board due to one director passing away, and two recent resignations due to family commitments. A process is currently underway to deal with these vacanciesState government statement
Just as the recent resignations happened before the directors ended their allotted term, so previous other non-executive directors - such as Mr Weimar - have left early.
While the personnel have moved on, the remuneration has not. A state government spokesperson confirmed on Friday the current chair is paid $60,000 and directors are paid $30,000 per year, and the level of remuneration has not changed since 2015.
This point, however, marks a low ebb for the board - numerically at the least. With the IBAC inquiry ongoing - and spread well beyond V/Line - it is also highly likely further upheaval lies ahead.
The current minister for public transport, Ben Carroll - who was appointed last year - submitted the following reply to a request for comment about the state of the board:"With huge growth in the number of people relying on regional public transport, the Victorian Government is committed to work with V/Line to ensure they have the right structure in place to continually improve their services."
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The statement continued: "Careful consideration is given to best fit governance arrangements for state owned enterprises. The governance arrangements can vary over time.
"There have been three recent casual vacancies from the board due to one director passing away, and two recent resignations due to family commitments. A process is currently underway to deal with these vacancies."
The board is also responsible for appointing the CEO, a present concern as the current incumbent Gary Liddle is there on an interim basis - his second time in that position role after Mr Pinder's predecessor also left under a cloud.
HOW V/LINE TRIED TO DODGE MEDIA QUERIES
As pressure on V/Line to improve transparency and processes mounts, it took repeated queries before it gave an accurate statement about the state of the board.
Four separate emails were sent before a spokesperson gave full details of recent resignations. An initial query revealed the recent departure of Liz Roadley, as well as pointing to the death of Mr Cook last year. Follow-up emails made no mention of any further resignations, reiterating the current make-up on the board.
An email eventually conceded another director had stepped down and would finish this month.
That should be public knowledge, and it should be readily accessible because it's taxpayer moneyGeoffrey Watson, director of the Centre for Public Integrity
The Centre for Public Integrity's Geoffrey Watson was unimpressed.
"I have seen the course of correspondence and it is almost impossible to gain information on who's on the board and where it's going.
"That should be public knowledge, and it should be readily accessible because it's taxpayer money."
"If for example it was a public company, and these sorts of moves were afoot, there's an obligation of disclosure, which would require it being released as soon as it was known."
The Courier sent a further query asking why the media inquiry was handled the way it was but the response did not address that part of the question.
THE EMAIL EXCHANGE IN FULL
FROM THE COURIER
Please could you confirm the current status of who sits on the V/Line board, including any recent resignations?
Could I ask for a response today please.
RESPONSE FROM V/LINE
Thanks for getting in touch
The directors of V/Line Corporation as at 13 May 2021 are:
- Gabrielle Bell, Chair
- Kevin McLaine
- Tom Sargant
- Rachel Thomson.
The following changes have occurred since 30 June 2020:
- Craig Cook (Deceased September 2020)
- Liz Roadley (Resigned 12 March 2021).
Can I please clarify one thing in your response which wasn't completely black and white:
Have any of the four current members of the board tendered their resignation?
If so, please could you clarify who, and their finishing dates?
V/LINE RESPONSE 2
There are no changes to the list provided below at this stage. We regularly update our website with the current board structure and will reflect any future changes there.
That does not answer the question. Have any members of the current board tendered their resignation? Please can you give a straight answer.
V/LINE RESPONSE 3
The website reflects the current make up of the board. One current director has tendered their resignation and will finish up on 31 May.
Can you please confirm it is just one current director who tendered their resignation?
V/LINE RESPONSE 4
Yes, that is correct.
And who is that, please?
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