HORSHAM Rural City mayor Mark Radford has welcomed the Victorian Ombudsman's call for a definition of the word "complaint" which applies to every council in Victoria.
On Wednesday, ombudsman Deborah Glass released the Revisiting councils and complaints report.
It showed great differences in the number of complaints the 79 councils across Victoria received in 2018. Horsham received 12, while Ararat Rural City Council received 1,180.
Ms Glass recommended to Local Government Minister Adem Somyurek the upcoming Local Government Bill (2019) "expressly include in the definition of 'complaint', complaints about 'a policy or decision made by a council or a member of council staff or a contractor engaged by the council that is otherwise subject to statutory review',".
The minister accepted this recommendation.
Cr Radford said he supported any measure that made things clearer to ratepayers.
"It would probably make sense for our definitions of complaint and service request matched our neighbours'," he said. "The government now has a framework so all councils have to report on the same issues.
"I can see where it can be blurred: If I say 'there's a pothole in that road', is that complaint or service request? From my understanding of how council works, that would be treated as a service request.
"If, having lodged a service request, that hole is still there in two weeks' time, there might be a good argument for putting in a complaint."
"Where we identify an error, we will offer a genuine apology in addition to any other remedies offered, irrespective of whether the complainant specifically requests this," the policy states.
Ararat Rural City mayor Peter Beales said while the report differentiated between complaints and requests for service, the council did not.
"We consider them all complaints so (the number) is 11,000, and the ombudsman says we're doing the right thing," he said.
"There have no complaints of conflict of interest from the public about the council or from the council internally, or on fraud. There was a time also a year ago when people were complaining about their rates being too much and we had a lot of those."
Cr Beales said the council had been able to reduce the number of complaints against the bin services in the municipality by recording them.
"We've been able to reduce them by 25 per cent be cause we saw there was a pattern developing in what was happening, and thought we should do some education," he said.
"When it was changed, it wasn't advertised very well that rubbish was being collected earlier, so that led to a big spike in complaints."
Cr Beales echoed Cr Radford's comments that a statewide consistent definition of complaint for council would help.
The ombudsman's report said Northern Grampians Shire Council did not regularly analyse complaints to identify trends and areas for improvement. The council said staff also did not report on the outcomes of complaints the council receives.
The report stated the council received 260 complaints in 2018 and 9000 requests for service.
Mayor Kevin Erwin said the council counted missed bin collections as complaints. He said it was still reviewing how to use the data presented.
The council said it did not differentiate between complaints and requests for service.
It received 589 requests for service in 2018.
"We don't have a reliable or an effective system in place to capture all data yet. This is a major focus for the next 12 months, with a whole new IT system," it told the ombudsman.
Yarriambiack mayor Councillor Graeme Massey offered insight into how requests and complaints were previously received.
"We didn't record anything against requests for service because the requests went all over the place," he said.
"It was never centrally recorded. Now we are doing that. It's being logged straight away and passed onto the appropriate people rather than the other way around."
Cr Massey said complaints seemed to mainly be about barking dogs and unkempt yards.
"It's rarely about a bin not being collected," he said.
Cr Massey said the council accepted the ombudsman's report and will action the recommendations.
"It's a governance issue so all requests are recorded and dealt with," he said.
"We have to show how many days it takes to resolve the issue. People will get a number and they can use that to follow it (the issue's progress)."
The new system could see a spike in the recorded number of complaints, but will not necessarily reflect an actual spike in complaints.
"All it will be is a better reflection of what's been happening the last few years," Cr Massey said.
The council told the ombudsman it did not keep a formal register of complaints, so the numbers of complaints and requests for service it provided to the review were estimates.
"Hindmarsh Shire Council says it does not regularly analyse complaints to identify trends and areas for improvement," the ombudsman's report said. "The council says staff do not report on the outcomes of complaints the council receives."
The report stated the council had 30 complaints and 400 requests for service in 2018.
Hindmarsh mayor Councillor Ron Ismay said it could be difficult to draw the line between a complaint and a request for service.
"I read (in the report) some of the councils may include garbage bins not being emptied (as a complaint) and I don't think we do," he said.
"Where do you draw the line? But it's pretty important and council will review the process."
Cr Ismay said effective complaint handling was "pretty important" but said he didn't "know where all this complaint stuff is going."
"If they're' going to start wrapping us over the knuckles if we haven't done (it)?" he said.
West Wimmera Shire Council told the ombudsman it did not generally differentiate between complaints and requests for service.
It also told the ombudsman it introduced a public engagement policy requiring it to live stream public consultation sessions, after receiving a complaint about scheduling the sessions only in evenings where older residents or those with family commitments could not attend.
In her report, the ombudsman also recommended the state government create regulations addressing the process for managing and resolving complaints about a council, and requiring councils to report on complaint data in their annual reports.
West Wimmera's mayor did not respond to request for comment by deadline.
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