Unrest on Melbourne’s fringe as councillor seeks legal advice over making apology

Unrest on Melbourne’s fringe as councillor seeks legal advice over making apology

Trevor Dance logged on to Hume City Council’s November 15 meeting from his computer at home.

This was not unusual: in the 12 months since being elected as a councillor, Cr Dance is yet to attend a meeting in person. Several members of the council on Melbourne’s north-western fringe have never met their colleague face to face.

Hume councillor Trevor Dance, pictured in 2017, has accused colleagues of misbehaviour with none yet sanctioned.Credit:Eddie Jim

Unusual for that day was a slot etched out in the agenda for Cr Dance to apologise to his fellow councillors after eight of them accused him of breaching the council’s code of conduct.

The 61-year-old Sunbury resident had missed the previous three meetings. Council had directed him not to attend the first two. He was an absentee without explanation for the third.

Seven minutes into the November 15 meeting, as Cr Dance’s apology time arrived, chief executive Sheena Frost informed the council it would not be happening that day.

“Cr Dance has advised there is a potential legal challenge to this item,” Ms Frost said.

“I’ve been able to confirm that our insurers have received an inquiry. It is currently being assessed, so I haven’t been able to confirm whether it’s been accepted.”

Cr Dance had seemingly sought legal advice over whether he should make an apology.

It was the latest in a series of moves that have bemused some colleagues and left them questioning what the first-time councillor’s goals are at Hume Council, which oversees Melbourne’s fastest-growing area including suburbs Broadmeadows, Craigieburn, Greenvale and Sunbury.

A bill of more than $50,000 of ratepayers’ money has been accumulated from 22 investigations into allegations of misbehaviour that Cr Dance has directed towards his colleagues or vice versa.

Many have involved Cr Dance – an independent who was a candidate for Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party in the 2014 state election – accusing fellow councillors of breaching their code of conduct. None have resulted in a sanction.

Hume councillor Jack Medcraft, who said persistent complaints have almost put him in a state of paranoia.Credit:Scott McNaughton

Independent councillor Jack Medcraft has been the subject of the majority of complaints from Cr Dance, who Cr Medcraft believes is waging a personal vendetta against him.

The duo both hail from Jacksons Creek ward, covering the satellite city of Sunbury.

While the details of many of Cr Dance’s allegations have not been made public, an external arbiter’s report released in September disclosed three.

They included a complaint over Cr Medcraft’s reply to a resident email regarding Christmas decorations in the area, which lacked a greeting before questioning “what exactly do you want?“. Cr Dance said the message broke councillors’ obligation to treat all people with respect.

Despite lodging the trio of accusations, Cr Dance did not attend the arbitration hearing in person. He did the same for each of his allegations against fellow councillors.

The 61-year-old’s absence made it difficult to test his evidence, the arbiter wrote, after Cr Dance cited a safety risk “with no adequate evidence provided”.

The arbiter dismissed all three claims against Cr Medcraft, who has been on Hume Council for 17 years, at a cost of $8250.

Cr Medcraft has lodged a bullying complaint against Cr Dance to Hume Council. He said the consistent allegations had almost put him in a state of paranoia.

Cr Dance was advocate for the Sunbury area for years before he was elected to council.Credit:Paul Rovere

“Every time you see the phone go, you think it’s another investigation,” he said. “I’ve tried to work along, but it wears you down, it gets to you psychologically.”

In written responses to questions, Cr Dance said he was “absolutely not” targeting Cr Medcraft and that was a “reckless proposition”.

“Any councillor can make a complaint, so I can’t bear the responsibility of [Cr Medcraft’s] alleged fear of not knowing where the next allegation will come from,” he said.

“If a councillor conducts themselves with grace and treats others with respect, they should have nothing to be concerned by.”

Hume mayor Carly Moore said she had not meet Cr Dance in-person since he was elected.Credit:Luis Enrique Ascui

Asked if his complaints were an efficient use of ratepayer funds, Cr Dance said he was unaware of the “outrageous” cost of internal investigations until the report was tabled in September.

Labor mayor Carly Moore, who has not met Cr Dance face to face, said she would be disappointed if councillors felt healthy debate could not occur because it could be seen as critical and lead to a complaint.

“The impact of poor councillor behaviour can be much greater than what you see in the chamber,” she said.

Despite the controversies, Cr Medcraft, Cr Moore and several other councillors who spoke to The Age said they believed the Labor-majority Hume Council was functioning well.

Yet after the state government appointed an external monitor to oversee Yarra City Council, Sunbury Residents Association president Graham Williams said he was concerned by the “not 100 per cent functional processes of Hume”.

“When you talk about good governance, this hasn’t been a shining example,” said Mr Williams.

Hume Council directed Cr Dance not to attend two council meetings in late September and early October, in line with a recommendation from the arbiter who found him guilty of breaching the code of conduct eight times. The complaints were lodged by Cr Moore and seven other councillors.

In one, Cr Dance used his official Facebook page to call local tennis courts “third world”.

In another, he was found to have supplied information to Liberal MP and friend Bernie Finn over a council civic reception to mark the results of the election, an event Cr Dance called “self indulgent” and “out of touch with reality”.

Victorian Liberal MP Bernie Finn, with whom Cr Dance allegedly shared information from private council discussions.Credit:Jason South

Sunbury was amalgamated into Hume Council by the Kennett government in 1994. Its separation back into its own shire has remained a hot topic among some residents since then. During last year’s election campaigning, Cr Dance said a split “was always viable”.

However, he told The Age: “Not once in my time on council have I mentioned that issue.”

The state’s Local Government Act was updated last year to open up a new avenue of internal complaints for councillors, where the council is obliged to call in an external arbiter for any allegations around the code of conduct.

Cr Medcraft thinks the process is flawed, allowing for a continuous stream of unproven allegations, as he says he has experienced.

“It should be like court – if you lose the case, you pay or there are some ramifications. Right now, there are none.”

Yet councillor Jarrod Bell, who lamented the “really disappointing” findings of breaches by Cr Dance in September, said the system had merits.

“You have to find that balance between people feeling like they have an instrument available to them, but there are questions around vexatious litigant style operators,” he said.

The new act also gives the local government minister, the head of the Local Government Inspectorate and the council the power to dismiss an individual councillor via a Supreme Court application.

A spokesman for current minister Shaun Leane did not respond to questions about what he was aware of regarding the work and culture at Hume Council and Cr Dance’s role.

“Councillors are required to uphold the highest levels of conduct and act in the best interests of their community,” he said in a statement.

An application by a group of councillors for Cr Dance to be referred to an external conduct panel is ongoing. It will decide if his failure to attend his own arbitration hearings constituted serious misconduct.

If found guilty, Cr Dance could be suspended for up to a year and directed to apologise again.

Until his legal advice is finalised, it’s unclear whether Cr Dance will make his first apology.

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