An independent investigation into Dubbo Regional Council's complaints-handing process has uncovered "systemic failures".
In May, councillors unanimously agreed to hire Pinnacle Integrity to look into the way council had been dealing with its code of conduct complaints.
At Monday night's council meeting, councillors reviewed the report and adopted a long list of recommendations to improve the complaints process. While the report itself is currently confidential, the recommendations are public.
The recommendations include ensuring only authorised persons deal with code of conduct complaints, the internal ombudsman sticks to what is permitted by the procedures, and that preliminary investigations are not carried out by any council employee.
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Mayor Stephen Lawrence said the outcomes of the investigation were "grave".
"The findings of the report are incredibly serious. For council to be resolving to accept recommendations such as 'only authorised people should deal with code of conduct complaints', 'serious matters should be dealt with under the code of conduct', speaks volumes about serious systemic failures," he said at the meeting.
The report also reinforced chief executive officer Murray Wood's responsibility to refer any allegations of alleged misconduct - including those of former staff and councillors - to the Office of Local Government, or other external agencies, which could include the Independent Commission Against Corruption or the police.
Mr Wood said the community could be assured any concerns raised would be addressed appropriately.
Other recommendations were for council to adopt a checklist for how complaints should be handled and for a structured process to be established for staff to make complaints.
Cr Lawrence told the community no one could say they were cleared of wrongdoing based on the report's findings.
"It was never, and could not have been, the role of this investigation to determine individual allegations of misconduct against councillors or former councillors or staff. There are processes for that," Cr Lawrence said.
Council will seek legal advice to see if parts of the independent investigator's report can be made public.
Mr Wood said he understood members of the public were frustrated the findings of the Independent Investigator remain confidential. However, he said disclosing information from within the investigation was against the recommendations of the investigator, and went against both the code of conduct and the Local Government Act.
Councillor John Ryan also acknowledged the systemic failures highlighted in the report.
But he said it was heartening to know council was now on the right track.
"Ratepayers of Dubbo can rest assured that good things are going to come of this," Cr Ryan said.
Recommendations adopted by council:
- That the information contained within the report of the Chief Executive Officer dated 26 July 2021, be noted.
- That the Chief Executive Officer implement the following recommendations of the Independent Investigator, that:
- Council adopts a checklist for the initial triage of Code of Conduct complaints.
- Council ensures Code of Conduct complaints are dealt with only by authorised persons.
- The role of the Internal Ombudsman is limited to that permitted by the Procedures.
- Council ensures that Preliminary Assessments and investigations are not carried out by any person directly employed by Council.
- Council undertakes additional training of Council staff as to the recording, triage, preliminary assessment, investigation and resolution stages of handling of Code of Conduct complaints.
- Council provides a structured process through which Council staff can make a Code of Conduct complaint, including anonymously.
- Council reinforces the obligation of Councillors and Council staff not to engage in inappropriate interactions in relation to Council business (including complaint handling).
- Where inappropriate interactions are reported, deal with those matters as alleged serious breaches of Council's Code of Conduct.
- That it be noted that the Chief Executive Officer is obliged to refer any findings of alleged misconduct relating to former Councillors and former staff to the Office of Local Government and other relevant agencies for their consideration.
- That Council notes its desire to publicly release the full independent investigator report and notes the strong public interest in the community understanding the rationale for the recommendations and the findings made.
- That Council request further specialist legal advice be obtained in regard to making available to the public the Independent investigation report ensuring Council meets its procedural fairness and legislative obligations.
- That a workshop of councillors be held once the specialist legal advice is obtained.
- That a report to be brought to the September meeting of council addressing the question of whether the report can be made public.
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