Ararat council on notice as farmers notch rates win
The State Government has directed Ararat Rural City Council to dump a proposed 2017 rating strategy and retain a 2016 plan.
The government move is in response to findings and recommendations from a Commission of Inquiry report into council activity.
The directive means the council is compelled to maintain a farming differential of 55 percent of residential property rates for 2017-18. The council had voted for a draft uniform rate across the municipality.
It also ends an intense and emotional chapter in an annual municipal rating debate that went beyond municipal boundaries and involved politicians and Victorian Farmers Federation.
The inquiry report listed 12 primary recommendations, not only in response to the rates saga, but also into issues such as how the council engaged with the Ararat district community, pursued the termination of its chief executive officer and appointed an interim chief executive officer, and fulfilled budgetary obligations.
It recommended through Local Government Minister Natalie Hutchins that the Ararat council establish a Rating Strategy Advisory Group, that the council considers direction from the group as well as the community, and that it bases its rating strategy in accordance with a Local Government Better Practice Guide.
The inquiry found that the council’s rating strategy for 2017 inconsistent with local government guidelines.
Based on the findings, Minister Hutchins will appoint a municipal monitor in Ararat to oversee the recommendations and assess the ability of and develop programs for individual councillors to improve governance.
She has also referred the details on the termination of the chief executive to the Chief Municipal Inspector and asked that Mayor Paul Hooper address findings into possible breaches of a Councillor Code of Conduct.
Cr Hooper must now notify Ms Hutchins within a 28-day period of the steps the council takes or proposes to take to meet the recommendations.
“I take the Commission of Inquiry’s recommendations very seriously and the appropriate measures will be put in place to ensure Ararat’s ratepayers received the good governance they deserve,” Ms Hutchins said.
“The Rural City of Ararat council is on notice – you can’t disregard you community and expect to get away with it. The council must take immediate and decisive steps to address these issues.”
An inquiry report summary stated that: ‘Ararat Rural City Council failed comprehensively to act in the interest of the municipality on some of the most important functions of any council; namely the rating strategy, community engagement, the termination of the chief executive officer, appointment of an interim CEO and fulfilling its budgetary obligations’.
It went on to explain that ‘these failures were due to poor governance practices by councillors and senior staff’.
Inquiry recommendations –
1. The minister appoints a monitor to the Ararat council for the next two years.
2. The Minister recommends to the mayor that the council appoint an external interim chief executive for a fixed 12 months to develop organsational restructure while working with the monitor.
3. The Minister recommends to the mayor that the council retain a 2017 strategy as the 20178 rating strategy.
4. The Minister recommends to the mayor that the council establish a Rating Strategy Advisory Group.
5. The Minister recommends to the mayor that the council consider recommendations of the Rating Strategy Advisor Group and public comment before developing a draft rating strategy.
6. The Minister recommends to the mayor that the council prepare a rating strategy in accordance with the Local Government Better Practice Guide to determine a rating structure that will provide the most equitable imposition of rates and charges. The strategy should be developed after results of a January 1, 2018 general revaluation of properties is known.
7. The Minister recommends to the mayor that the council develop an implementation plan to transition the current rating structure to the proposed rating structure with the aim of providing a reasonable degree of stability in the level of the rates burden.
8. That accountability to the community improved by amending the Act to require a council to justify the use of a uniform rate as a method for the equitable imposition of rates as it currently requires for the use of differential rates.
9. The Minister recommends to the mayor that the council review its current range and level of service provision to the community with a view to making structural changes that ensure it can fully fund its asset-renewal requirements and remain financially viable over the long term.
10. The Minister recommends to the mayor that the council review its community-engagement policy.
11. The Minister recommends to the Electoral Commission before its next statutory review, that it undertake a review of the unsubdivided electoral structure at the Ararat council.
12. The Minister recommends to the mayor that the council adopts best practice and restricts councilor access only to the minutes of Audit Committee meetings and councillors no longer approve recommendations of the internal auditor.