‘Catastrophic event’: Moira Shire Council sacked after employee murder

An entire council in northern Victoria has been sacked after the murder of a senior employee sparked an investigation which uncovered a litany of failures by a dysfunctional leadership.

Local Government Minister Melissa Horne said on Tuesday that Moira Shire Council would be put into administration for five years after a scathing commission of inquiry report found the council degenerated into a hotbed of mismanagement resulting in an unsafe and toxic workplace.

As part of its inquiry, the commission has referred concerns about serious misconduct to Victoria’s anti-corruption commission.

The investigation into the council came after the murder of Rick Devlin, a senior council employee, by council worker Andrew Paterson in August 2021.

The seven-month probe by commissioners Frances O’Brien and John Tanner exposed widespread governance failures dating back a decade.

They concluded Devlin’s death may have been prevented if the council provided a safe and healthy workplace.

The commission will refer the evidence it collated on Devlin’s death to the state coroner.

Paterson stopped going to work in November 2019 after his colleagues falsely accused him of stealing a small quantity of kerosene from the depot where he worked in Nathalia. The commission noted Paterson deeply resented the accusation and he started receiving workers’ compensation from January 2020.

When he asked for a voluntary redundancy, including a $25,000 payout, the council rejected the request, despite other employees in the past receiving similar redundancy payments.

About a year later, Paterson murdered Devlin, shooting him with a revolver outside his home in rural Numurkah. Paterson pleaded guilty to the murder and in December last year was jailed for 26 years with a 21-year non-parole period.

A Supreme Court judgment found Paterson held an “unshakeable belief” that Devlin had orchestrated his removal from the workplace, despite Devlin not being Paterson’s direct manager.

Problems identified at Moira Shire Council by the commission of inquiry

  • Council can no longer effectively carry out its responsibilities because its governance has deteriorated;
  • Council does not manage the performance of its CEO, who the commission also found has failed to fulfil four key duties;
  • The organisation has failed to ensure the health and safety of employees in its depots and other outdoor locations;
  • The shire council transferred asbestos waste to stations not licensed to receive it, putting staff, contractors and residents at risk;
  • The organisation left the town of Numurkah and its residents at serious risk of floods by delaying approved flood mitigation measures;
  • Two major capital projects were mismanaged, and
  • The council does not work in the best interests of the whole shire under its current model for representation.

It alleged the council’s human resources management team should have tried to restore health and safety at the depots but instead pursued “flimsy and unfounded actions against accused employees including Mr Paterson”.

The commissioners took aim at council chief executive Clare Keenan, describing her as ill-equipped and displaying antipathy to one of the councillors, affecting her ability to play a conciliatory role.

However, they said she could not be held responsible for the failure of previous administrations to ensure a safe working environment in council depots.

While governance of the council had been steadily eroding over the past decade, the commission said the appointment of the inexperienced Keenan exacerbated the issues at Moira Shire Council that had become “increasingly unstable”.

“The commission found it difficult to comprehend that such an inexperienced CEO was first appointed to the role, and then given an increase in salary and a contract extension within the probationary period.”

In a statement, Keenan said the council would review the report’s findings and seek advice before making further comment.

“We understand that the findings of the report may be confronting for our staff and their families and concerning for our community,” she said. “Our priority continues to be the wellbeing of staff and we have implemented measures to ensure they have support.”

The inquiry laid bare the dysfunction at Moira Shire Council that spanned years and crossed council operations, leading to infrastructure delays and cost blowouts. There has also been a steep decline in the community’s confidence in the council over this period of time.

The council’s facilities maintenance coordinator has been referred to the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission after he directed more than $500,000 of work without a tender process to an Albury-based company that employed his son, and then later to a company part-owned by his son.

The commission was also scathing of the council’s dumping of toxic soil at waste transfer stations that were not licensed to receive asbestos and referred the matter to IBAC, describing it as a serious misconduct that put council staff, contractors and residents at potential risk.

The council also allegedly mismanaged two major infrastructure projects despite receiving substantial funding from the federal and state governments, and failed to build its promised levee bank at Numurkah more than 10 years after the devastating 2012 floods.

The shire now faces mounting workers’ compensation claims, which have grown from $130,000 in 2020-21 to $2.25 million in 2023-24.

The report found the council was “dominated” by former mayor Libro Mustica for five terms and, while he was motivated to improve community and infrastructure, he was often “conflicted in council decision-making and obliged to withdraw from discussion”.