In May, 2019, the Local Government Inspectorate met with then Mayor, Cr Don Henderson and Hepburn Shire CEO, Evan King, to begin their investigation of Council’s purchase and refurbishment of the Rex Theatre.
In the beginning, Acting CEO Bruce Lucas asked the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission (IBAC) to conduct an investigation but he was advised by IBAC to contact the LGI instead.
Now, over four years later, the report of the LGI investigation has still not been released.
Almost a year has passed since The Wombat Post published “The Inspectorate Report – 1104 Days (and Counting) is Too Long”. Now 1461 days have passed since LGI investigators completed their search of Council offices and interviews with Council staff.
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.
Nine months later, Mr Pogonowski responded to an inquiry from The Wombat Post saying that “The Inspectorate is finalising its report into Hepburn Shire Council.”
It is inconceivable that after 1461 days, the Inspectorate is still “finalising” the report. Why isn’t the report being released?
The LGI annual report for 2020/21 provides a clue. Under the heading “Parliamentary Privilege”, the report 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.” It seems likely that this refers to the report on the Hepburn Hub project.
Email exchanges the Wombat Post has seen suggest there are serious questions to answer about the initial purchase of the Rex and subsequent land sales by Council of 1 Bleakley Street Daylesford and 59 Main Road Hepburn.
The Rex has now been sold, but ratepayers remain in the dark about the cause of this expensive fiasco. Council purchased the building in 2016 for $6.15 million and sold it in December 2022 for $3.75 million after spending $3 million on an incomplete renovation. Over the same period, property values in Daylesford almost doubled.
More than that, almost 10 years have passed since the Council recognised the need for more appropriate accommodation for council staff and services. The Rex solution has been abandoned and no alternate plans have been announced so a solution is still several years away.
Council is in regular contact with the Local Government Inspectorate and is actively pursuing release of the final report on The Rex. The Mayor, Cr Brian Hood, said “Council will welcome the release of this outrageously overdue report, if and when it ever comes. Requests by the public or media for specific details on the release of the report are encouraged but should be referred to the Inspectorate as the investigation and subsequent report is subject to their internal processes.”
The Wombat Post has written to local member, Mary-Anne Thomas and to the Attorney General, Jaclyn Symes, to request assistance in releasing the report but no reply has been received.
Council has assured residents that it has implemented “strengthened processes” to prevent a repeat of the circumstances that led to the acquisition of the Rex but has not explained what those circumstances were. Residents still have a right to understand what went wrong and who was responsible.
The Daylesford/Hepburn community has been treated disrespectfully by the Local Government Inspectorate. The failure to respond to repeated requests for the release of the report, or even to provide an explanation for the delay, is unacceptable.
Clearly, this investigation is beyond the capacity and capability of the Local Government Inspectorate. It is time to refer the matter to IBAC.
If you wish to personally contact relevant government officials to demand the release of this report, you can write to one or more of the following. You can include a link to this editorial or copy and paste it into your letter or paraphrase it as you wish.
Attorney General: email@example.com
Local Member, Mary-Anne Thomas: firstname.lastname@example.org
Minister for Local Government: Melissa.Horne@parliament.vic.gov.au
Local Government Inspectorate: email@example.com
Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission: firstname.lastname@example.org