It is now 1,256 days since the Local Government Inspectorate (LGI) visited the Shire to examine matters related to the purchase and refurbishment of the Rex Theatre for the purpose of creating a community hub.

So The Wombat Post asks, yet again, “Where is the Inspectorate Report?”

The Inspectorate visited Hepburn Shire offices on July 23 and 24, 2019, as part of their investigation into the Hepburn Hub at The Rex project.

The investigation continued for some months as inspectors examined financial reports in detail and questioned Council staff involved. Council cooperated fully with the investigation.

Much has happened in the Shire since 2018 when concerns were raised by an internal audit of the project and a by subsequent external audit. The audits prompted Council to refer the matter for investigation and caused Interim CEO Bruce Lucas to halt the project. Council has had two CEOs since then and all but one of the Councillors at the time have moved on. The Rex, which has been boarded up since 2018, has been offered for sale by Expressions of Interest which have now closed. The EOI process may lead to a final sale position by the end of January, 2023.

After the sale of The Rex, Council will have put this sorry saga behind them. But for residents, bitter memories will linger and the financial damage will remain. And still, there will be no answers.

In June 2021, Steve Pogonowski, Senior Communications Adviser for the LGI, advised The Wombat Post that the Inspectorate had completed a draft report which, as part of the Inspectorate’s process, was circulated for comment to key stakeholders, including parties named in the report. Recipients were allowed a few weeks to respond.

Since then, both Council and The Wombat Post have made repeated requests to the Inspectorate for the release of the report. The LGI has steadfastly refused to comment.

The LGI annual report for 2020/21 states that “A major investigation – completed by late 2020 – has required the engagement of legal counsel to assist with concerns over the publication of the investigation outcomes.” The statement can only refer to the publication of the LGI report into the Hepburn Hub at The Rex project.

For two years then, the completed report has languished on the desk of the Chief Municipal Inspector, Michael Setefanovic, and he has been unable to progress it. It is apparent that the LGI is being held to ransom by a person or persons named in the report.

It is essential that residents of the Shire have an understanding of how The Rex misadventure occurred. If the LGI continues to hold the report in secrecy, questions of a cover up and potential corruption will continue to circulate.

The Chief Municipal Inspector has a number of options. He could publish a redacted report removing any potentially litigious statements. However, this would further fuel rumours of a conspiracy and a cover up.

The Chief Inspector could call the bluff of any potential litigants and publish the report.  Presumably, the report is based on evidence collected during their extensive investigations.  And yet the Chief Municipal Inspector appears to be concerned that he could not defend the report in a court of law.

If a legal case is brought against the Inspectorate, the LGI would have the full support of the Attorney General’s office under which the LGI sits. In court, the LGI would have the best legal team that the state government could afford. The report would have to have serious flaws to be vulnerable at law.

Finally, the Chief Municipal Inspector could request that the Attorney General table the report in State Parliament where it would enjoy the protection of Parliamentary Privilege.

All of these options are open. And still the Chief Municipal Inspector has not published the report.

In the case of the Hepburn Hub at the Rex investigation, the LGI has utterly failed its responsibility to ensure accountability and transparency of local government. Justice delayed is justice denied. It is time for other state officials to step in to ensure the accountability and transparency the LGI appears unable to provide.

Despite requests from the Wombat Post, our local Member Mary-Anne Thomas has not yet provided an explanation for the delays in the report, nor insisted that it be published, nor has the Attorney General, Jaclyn Symes, tabled the report in State Parliament.

The embarrassing failure to release the report after more than two years delay calls into question the competence of the Local Government Inspectorate and the Chief Municipal Inspector.

The Rex saga has been a painful and expensive mistake for the local community that requires a full and transparent explanation.

A draft of this editorial was sent to the Chief Municipal Inspector, Michael Stefanovic, with an invitation to comment but he declined to make any statement.

Relates stories:

Rex Abandoned

The Inspectorate Report – How Long is Too Long?