Maryborough is one of the lowest socio-economic areas in Victoria. (ABC News: Danielle Bonica)
Former councillors from the Central Goldfields Shire in regional Victoria say they are being treated as scape-goats after their chief executive was charged with financial mismanagement.
“It makes us look like the guilty ones doesn’t it, to come out and sack us and we’re not the guilty ones at all,” former councillor Helen Broad said.
The Local Government Minister at the time, Natalie Hutchins, sacked the seven-member council in August after a damning report by the integrity agency, the Local Government Investigations and Compliance Inspectorate.
Ms Hutchins had given the council 28 days to respond and enact improvements, but dismissed them just five days later.
“I’ve been a councillor 21 years,” former mayor Geoff Lovett said.
“I’ve given a lifetime of service to this community. For us to be sacked in the way we were sacked is both disappointing and I believe an affront to democracy.
“The Minister acted very underhandedly, we didn’t deserve this.”
CEO Mark Johnston was at the helm of the council for 22 years.
The inspectorate investigated him for a year, and alleged he used council funds for his own personal use and to pay his taxes.
He is now facing criminal charges, with 41 offences dating back 14 years, allegedly spending $39,000.
The matters are now before Maryborough Magistrates Court.
Financial woes take their toll on struggling region
The report also outlined governance issues at council, including the underselling of properties, resulting in a loss of over $700,000 in ratepayer funds, as well as $120,000 in missing flood recovery grant funding.
The financial mismanagement is particularly difficult for the shire, which is one of the lowest socio-economic regions in Victoria.
“I always had concerns of the financial mismanagement before I went into council,” Ms Broad said.
“They seem to pay a lot of rates and not get much for it.”
No charges have been brought against any member of the council — some of whom were only elected in October last year.
Two councillors said they wrote to the Minister last year about their suspicions, and heard nothing in return.
“In her statement she has blamed the councillors, where in fact, I believe she has failed the councillors and the community of the central goldfields shire,” Ms Broad said.
Former councillor Helen Broad (R) said she raised concerns about the council’s management. (ABC News: Danielle Bonica)
But acting CEO Vince Haining said the council lacked proper oversight.
“Our systems and processes are very weak and our control mechanisms need significant work on them,” he said.
Locals worried about lack of representation
The Victorian Local Government Association has publicly supported the councillors, saying the way the dismissal occurred was “unprecedented”.
“We were really disappointed that a democratically elected council was dismissed,” President Mary Lalios said.
The councillors are fighting to be reinstated, but the State Government has appointed an interim administrator to act as the council, with three full-time administrators to be appointed shortly.
Council elections will not be held until 2020.
Too long for Carisbrook resident Melva Wright, who is worried about a lack of local representation.
“We mightn’t be in the land of the living by then,” she said.