Town hall rocked to its foundations

By Shane Scanlan

Robert Doyle’s troubles have rocked the town hall, with councillors uncertain about the future and whether the Lord Mayor will be back.

Some councillors are unwilling to talk on the record, aware of the reputational damage being inflicted by the ongoing saga sparked by sexual misconduct allegations against Cr Doyle.  Others aren’t returning calls at all.

The “corporate line” is to withhold comment until after Ian Freckelton has completed his investigation.  But, privately, Cr Doyle’s colleagues generally expect him to fight and scrap to hang on but, ultimately, succumb under the weight of what is still to come.

Cr Doyle’s often-described “most loyal supporter”, former deputy lord mayor Susan Riley, however, sees the writing on the wall.

“It’s difficult to see how he can return to his position with the respect of the council and the community,” Cr Riley said. “In a way, he should resign – gracefully.”

She said the Lord Mayor needed time to attend to his “health issues”.

Newly-returning councillor Beverley Pinder-Mortimer was similarly focused on what would be in the Lord Mayor’s best interests.

She said: “Acknowledging the Lord Mayor’s immense contribution to this city and state over 25 years, perhaps he could consider closing the door on this chapter of his life so he can rest, recharge and become reinvigorated for his next public role.”

Cr Jackie Watts said she was not pre-empting the outcome, but people were asking “what constitutes a fit and proper person to lead”.

Councillors know little more than the general public – learning of developments in the saga via the daily press.

City of Melbourne CEO Ben Rimmer hasn’t involved them and has conducted a private investigation into allegations against Cr Doyle via Queens Counsel Dr Ian Freckelton.  Emerging allegations are prolonging Dr Freckelton’s work and a separate State Government probe looks set to further continue the period of uncertainty.

The council corporation refuses to talk about the Freckelton inquiry and won’t even reveal its terms of reference. But the secrecy is hurting everyone involved, with rumour and innuendo filling the void.

Asked how the public could have confidence in a secret inquiry, a council spokesperson said: “The investigation is being conducted in accordance with natural justice principles”.

Staff, too, are affected, with one senior manager confiding to CBD News that they were embarrassed to wear their City of Melbourne identity lanyard in public since the allegations emerged in December.

Mr Rimmer finds himself in a position of ultimate influence.  The process Mr Rimmer chooses to follow could well determine Cr Doyle’s future, should he decide to fight on.

Public release of the actual allegations and Dr Freckelton’s findings might seal the Lord Mayor’s demise.  But continued secrecy could well inflict even more damage – particularly to the council itself.

Appropriately, Mr Rimmer has no capacity to dismiss an elected representative, but has a range of state government referral options open to him.

Observers have been looking for signs of support for Cr Doyle from Spring St, where his fate could be determined.

The speed with which Health Minister Jill Hennessy announced a state investigation (and the breath of the inquiry) suggests that the state may well be prepared to throw Cr Doyle under a bus.

Others aren’t so sure, citing Cr Doyle’s good personal relationship with Premier Andrews and Labor’s fears of a potential Greens lord mayor.

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