A dispute between two Moyne Shire Councillors has devolved into a formal complaint process, costing ratepayers thousands of dollars despite the case ultimately being dismissed.
Cr Jim Doukas applied to Moyne Shire's councillor conduct registrar in June 2022 seeking a "serious misconduct" finding against colleague Damian Gleeson for breaching the councillor code of conduct.
The registrar decided there was enough evidence to investigate the matter further at a formal hearing, which meant setting up a code of conduct panel and compiling a report. While the case was dismissed once Cr Gleeson's evidence had been heard, the council estimated the process had cost about $5000 as well as a significant amount of staffing resources.
The squabble had its origins in an unusual failed attempt by Moyne councillors to elect a new mayor when Cr Daniel Meade stepped down from the role in late 2021. With the vote locked at 3-3 between Cr Gleeson and Cr Jordan Lockett, Cr Doukas left the meeting without voting for either candidate and the election failed, leaving the council without a mayor for a week.
The following day Cr Doukas told The Standard he refused to vote for either candidate because Crs Gleeson and Lockett had made a code of conduct allegation against him. Despite both councillors having dropped the allegation, Cr Doukas said the matter was unresolved because "they still think I'm guilty".
"You're meant to pick the best person for mayor and neither of them qualify," he said at the time.
Crs Gleeson and Lockett responded through The Standard three days later, explaining their reason for making the complaint against Cr Doukas.
"In our view, Cr Doukas breached the code of conduct in his verbal exchange with a female staff member at an open council meeting which resulted in a formal complaint to the CEO from the staff member concerned," the councillors said.
This paragraph was the basis of Cr Doukas' case against Cr Gleeson. Cr Doukas said it constituted the release of "significant confidential details to the public about the code of conduct allegations made against me".
But in his evidence at the hearing on January 31, 2023, Cr Gleeson said it was Cr Doukas who had made the code of conduct allegations public in his initial comments to The Standard. He said he approached a council director about responding publicly to Cr Doukas' statements.
Cr Gleeson said the response he and Cr Lockett had provided to The Standard had been legally cleared for publication by Maddocks Lawyers at the instigation of the council's chief executive officer.
In its report the two-person councillor conduct panel said the joint statement from Crs Gleeson and Lockett "did not amount to a disclosure of confidential information pursuant to the (Local Government) Act".
"The article does not disclose the name of the council staff member involved in the verbal exchange and does not even identify the council meeting in which the exchange took place," the panel said.
"The panel also notes the restraint used by (Cr Gleeson) in his statement published in The Standard on November 15, 2021, focusing only on the code of conduct matter disclosed by (Cr Doukas) in the article of November 12, 2021 and not responding to the personal attack... in that same article where, when referring to the respondent, (Cr Doukas) stated that 'you're meant to pick the best person for mayor and neither of them qualify'."
The council formally noted the report at its monthly meeting on March 28. Councillors voted unanimously to table the report, but nobody opted to make any further comment on the matter.
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