Monitor warns Greens-run Yarra Council over ‘unsustainable’ finances

Key points

  • The monitor reported that a number of elected representatives struggled to distinguish their role as Councillors from their party-political allegiances and would use media outlets to feed public controversy.
  • The Andrews government appointed a municipal monitor to the Yarra City Council in November last year, citing concerns about the council’s governance and its ability to make decisions in the interests of the local community.
  • He also said that Councillors had not complied with the social media policy and that Council meetings had become acrimonious after Greens councillor Anab Mohamud was charged with assault.

The state government-appointed monitor of the Greens-run City of Yarra Council will remain in place for an extra three months after he found the council’s financial position was “unsustainable”.

A report released on Wednesday by monitor Yehudi Blacher said a combination of reduced revenue because of the COVID-19 pandemic and “structural budgetary problems which have built up over a number of years” had left the council with a “problematic legacy which needs to be addressed”.

Greens councillors Edward Crossland and Sophie Wade. Wade was elected mayor and Crossland deputy mayor last year.Credit:Luis Enrique Ascui

He said issues the council would need to address included “a historical reliance on government grants and borrowings to balance the budget, high levels of staffing and overheads when compared with similar inner-urban councils … underinvestment in business improvement IT systems and historical reluctance to increase charges in line with costs increases for council-provided services”.

On Wednesday, the Andrews government agreed with Blacher’s recommendation that he remain for a further three months. His term will conclude about eight weeks before the Victorian state election, at which the Greens are targeting a number of Labor-held inner-city seats.

The state seat of Richmond overlaps significantly with the City of Yarra, and has long been a target for the Greens.

Labor minister Richard Wynne has held the seat of Richmond for 22 years, but said in November he would not recontest it. Greens councillor and former Yarra mayor Gabrielle Di Vietri is the party’s Richmond candidate.

Victorian Greens leader Samantha Ratnam said she remained concerned about the Victorian Labor government’s “lack of transparency and accountability when appointing and extending monitors”.

“The minister should have to meet a clear set of criteria before they can appoint or extend a monitor,” she said. “Without this transparency, the parliament and the public aren’t able to hold the minister to account and councils are left vulnerable to political interference.”

In his report, Blacher said a number of elected representatives struggled to distinguish their role as councillors from their party-political allegiances and would use media outlets to feed public controversy.

“[There are] a number of highly articulate community groups and individuals with strong connections to mainstream media outlets and active use of social media which amplify normal differences of views between councillors,” he said.

“Some councillors actively encourage, and indeed use, these outlets to create a false impression of controversy and indeed crisis in relation to certain matters.”

Blacher said the language used by some councillors had not complied with the social media policy and that council meetings had become acrimonious after Greens councillor Anab Mohamud was charged with assault.

“The unfortunate circumstances of one councillor being charged with alleged assault also led to some ugly interactions during council meetings,” he said.

Cr Mohamud was charged over her alleged involvement in a fight outside a South Yarra nightclub in April last year, which will be contested at a three-day trial in October.

Local Government Minister Shaun Leane.Credit:Eddie Jim

The council has recently appointed a new chief executive, Sue Wilkinson, who will commence on June 27.

Local Government Minister Shaun Leane announced the appointment of a monitor in November and said the move would help guide good governance.

Blacher said that since his appointment, it appeared the council had improved, but he suspected that without adequate councillor communication it was “unlikely that the best decisions are made in the interest of the community”.

Mayor of Yarra Sophie Wade said the council was committed to improvement and “looks forward to continuing to work in partnership with Mr Blacher over the next three months”.

“Council has already made progress on a number of topics referred to in the monitor’s terms of reference, including adopting a new councillor code of conduct and social media policy, conducting a review of our governance rules, and implementing changes to improve governance practices,” she said.

Socialist Yarra councillor Stephen Jolly said the report detailed behaviour that was happening at most councils in Victoria.

“The report’s good – there’s nothing in it that’s unfair – and, therefore, I don’t know why he extended the position for three months.”

Councillor Stephen JollyCredit:Luis Enrique Ascui

Blacher recommended that the council mandate attendance by councillors at council briefings; complete the proposed charter of mutual respect between councillors, staff and the community; approve the budget; and employ recommendations that come from the review of the local government’s finances.

He also recommended that councillors comply with the recently approved code of conduct and social media policy, and that the council give further consideration to the code and policy “to proscribe personal criticisms by councillors of each other”.

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