CEO buries Freckelton investigation

By Shane Scanlan

The full extent of allegations against former lord mayor Robert Doyle will probably never be known as council CEO Ben Rimmer tries to kill off the $1million investigation he started last December.

Having achieved Mr Doyle’s resignation in February, it comes as no surprise that the leader of Victoria’s most secretive council is now hell bent on preserving what’s left of its reputation.

Mr Rimmer on March 13 released to councillors and the public a mere 805 words from a 100-page, so called “First Report” from investigator Ian Freckelton QC.

His strategic timing, stage management and content of a 4pm special council meeting and its resulting human drama and pathos conspired to divert attention away from his intention to kill off the investigation process.

It was “lights, camera, action” in the council chamber just in time to catch the nightly news bulletins.  The apologies, the tears, the hugs and the promise by councillors to make the City of Melbourne a better place was the story of the day.

And, considering that councillors were given just a few hours and the press about an hour before the meeting to digest his 3345-word, carefully crafted report, it is no surprise that the theatre of the occasion took centre stage.

Like the ancient Romans, who maintained control of their population by providing “bread and circuses”, Mr Rimmer is an artful bureaucrat.

What was less apparent on the night was the relative insignificance of what Mr Rimmer chose to release.

His material added nothing to what was already publicly well known about a small number of accusations.  And the “First Report” deliberately confined itself to matters relating to Cr Cathy Oke and former councillor Tessa Sullivan (although it goes on to inconsistently mention the also-publicly-known Melbourne Health incident, which Mr Rimmer calls a “further allegation”).

Reference to a “further allegation” implies that there have been just three women have made complaints against Mr Doyle.  This is not the case.  CBD News understands that many complainants have contacted Dr Freckelton since Cr Sullivan resigned with a 35-page letter of complaint on December 15.

Like many other aspects, Mr Rimmer’s report is silent on the number of complainants.

“The First Report does not consider other matters that have been raised by OTHERS (our emphasis) in relation to Mr Doyle’s conduct,” he says.

He goes on to say: “Such matters, where relevant to his role as Lord Mayor, MAY (our emphasis) be the subject of a further report.”

Is it too cynical to suggest that the determining factor as to whether there will be a further report is whether or not anyone notices or cares about the paucity of detail to date?

Mr Rimmer says that his nine-page March 13 report is a summary “derived from the executive summary” of the first report.

Tactically, this is a departure from his February 6 announcement that there would be an “interim report” followed by a “final report”.  At that time he said the “interim draft report” had been provided to Mr Doyle on January 30.

While Mr Rimmer has revealed that Dr Freckelton’s “First Report” found four adverse findings against Mr Doyle, we still know nothing about what Dr Freckelton's terms of reference were. We have been given some answers without their questions.

We don’t know how broad or narrow the investigation was.  Or:

How many women came forward?

How many allegations have been made?

What is the nature of the allegations?

Were allegations made against any other councillors?

On what basis was an allegation judged worthy of investigation?

On February 6 Mr Rimmer said: “To date, no concerns about the conduct of any person other than the Lord Mayor have been identified as requiring investigation.”

This does not say that no allegations have been made against other councillors. But it does say that certain criteria must have been in place by which allegations were judged worthy of investigation.  So what are these criteria?

A suitably-redacted version of Dr Freckleton’s first report would adequately protect participants and, at the same time, satisfy the public interest.

For Ms Sullivan, public exposure of the breadth and quantity of her allegations about her time as a councillor would better explain why she resigned.

Among Mr Rimmer’s justifications for not revealing more on March 13 is that he is legally bound not to reveal “personal information”.  This is a City of Melbourne favourite and is also frequently used to avoid its obligations under Freedom of Information legislation.

He brought a lawyer with him to discuss with councillors the risks of revealing more, which is also a classic strategy from the City of Melbourne playbook – pay for an opinion from a consultant or lawyer to support your position.

And, judging from the March 13 special meeting, there is little appetite from councillors to continue the pain.  The consensus appears to be to move on, rebuild and put the matter behind them.

Cr Jackie Watts said: “I’m frustrated that, because of the various legal constraints and difficulties, we are seeing a summary.  I understand fully why this has occurred but it is my deep position that more information is better than less, but the summary outlines the legal position and very well.”

Acting Lord Mayor Arron Wood said: “We now have a summary of findings, and it is a summary of findings for the various reasons outlined in the summary report.”

“I know it’s probably going to fall on deaf ears and the public commentary will probably continue, but there is still an ongoing investigation in terms of the third complainant.”

“But people want to get on with their lives and start to rebuild their lives and start to focus on some of the good things that they wake up for every day,” Cr Wood said.

Whether other complainants feel the same way remains to be seen.  Just don’t hold your breath waiting for more information about this sorry saga to come from the City of Melbourne.

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