Readers may have seen media reports that the Ombudsman has investigated Glen Eira Council’s ‘complaint handling process’ and found them to be – to put it bluntly – beyond the pale in dealing with residents. Here is what the ombudsman has determined –


… [the] footpath works were conducted by a third-party contractor. Council is not, as a matter of law, liable for the alleged negligence of contractors and accordingly, you will need to direct your claim to the contractor …Glen Eira City Council in response to the complainant

When is a complaint not a complaint? I asked this question in a report I tabled in 2019 when I was trying to compare Victorian council complaint numbers, which turned out to be the idiomatic apples and oranges. This definitional dilemma was so confusing we found a small rural council with over a thousand complaints but a large metropolitan council with fewer than a hundred – plus nearly 300,000 ‘requests for service’ it had decided were not complaints.

I said at the time that councils needed to adopt a wide definition of ‘complaint’ not only to improve their services to ratepayers, but also to help themselves. A complaint is, essentially, an expression of dissatisfaction. Complaints are free feedback about how the community regards council services. They can identify pressure points where things need to be fixed.

Happily, the State Government adopted my recommendations, which were reflected in the revamped Local Government Act. It required all 79 Victorian councils to adopt and maintain a complaint policy from 1 January 2022.

Less happily, while councils have updated their complaint handling policies and processes, some areas of apparent confusion remain. For at least one local council, a claim for compensation was not a complaint, even though it was an expression of dissatisfaction.

This report follows a complaint made by a Glen Eira City Council ratepayer about damaged stormwater pipes causing flooding on his property. His plumber said footpath works by a Council contractor likely caused the damage.

The ratepayer presented his plumber’s opinion and quote to the Council, expecting it to resolve the matter, no doubt by arranging for the damage to be fixed or at least considering his complaint. The Council, however, said the footpath works were done several years earlier, and the ratepayer should take it up directly with the Council’s contractor. The ratepayer’s reluctance to do so added a layer of complexity which was not helped by the Council’s stubborn position of persistently claiming it was not a complaint, but a claim for compensation.

I disagree. We found the Council’s handling of the matter to be wrong. A claim for compensation can still be a complaint, and almost invariably is. The Council’s handling of the complaint was contrary to the spirit of its own policy, not to mention the Local Government Act, both of which adopt a broad definition of complaint.

Frustratingly, while the Council accepted my recommendation in an early draft of this report to arrange an investigation of the damage and to liaise with the contractor to arrange repairs if appropriate, the complaint remains unresolved. The Council says it investigated and found no evidence the contractor was responsible. But it was vague in explaining how it arrived at such a firm view, and failed to offer the ratepayer a review of that decision.

Equally frustratingly, during our interactions, the Council centred much of its response around liability, when that is not, and has never been, the key point. Whether or not the Council, the contractor, or the complainant is liable to pay for the damage, the Council has a responsibility to deal with the complaint.

So where has it landed? The Council has accepted my recommendation to provide the ratepayer with the evidence and detailed reasons for its view that the contractor did not damage the pipes, and to provide him with an option for review if he remains dissatisfied. I will monitor this with interest.

While this complaint involved one ratepayer and one council, I am tabling this report to highlight bigger issues. One is that complaints matter, and councils should not be paying lip service to the broad definition in the Local Government Act.

Second, during our investigation we found Victoria’s 79 councils adopt widely varying approaches to handling matters involving contractor work, and it appears many may have more work to do in developing and explaining their processes for these types of complaints.

It is clearly in the interests of all councils to engage with complaints about their contractors’ services, which are invariably funded by ratepayers. Among other things, it gives them the opportunity to identify poor quality of work, and keeps them informed about the status of local infrastructure. And it ensures they continue to have a direct relationship with their ratepayers.

Deborah Glass

At one stage the Council appeared to suggest legal action might be necessary, though fortunately, it later clarified this view, as it simply cannot be right that the only recourse for a citizen alleging damage caused by council works is to take legal action against a third party.


The full report is available below