Coorong councillor breached code of conduct, but that's not the only problem

Exclusive: The Coorong council's dirty laundry has begun to be aired in a report which makes findings against Councillor Vern Leng.

This story was originally published behind Murray Bridge News’ paywall. Paywalled stories are unlocked four weeks after publication. Can’t wait that long? Subscribe here.

“Immediate intervention” is needed to keep the Coorong council functioning for the benefit of the community, the Local Government Association says.

An LGA investigation has pulled back the curtain on the “extreme” situation in a report which found five breaches of the council member code of conduct by Cr Vern Leng.

The report alleges that Cr Leng slammed a laptop shut on the fingers of Cr Glynis Taylor at a meeting last March, intimidated her in the car park of the Karoonda Football Club in September, and also made damaging public remarks about a former staff member.

Those actions could not be excused, but were part of a broader pattern of hostility between two factions at the council, local governance panel member Daniel Krips said in the report.

“The situation is extreme,” Mr Krips said.

“Immediate intervention is required in order to preserve the ability of the council's elected member group to function for the benefit of the community.

“The relationship between these two groups of councillors is highly polarised and destructive ... generally disruptive, inhibits reasonable and destructive debate and discredits the council as a whole.”

Behaviour was not acceptable, investigation finds

The first of three complaints against Cr Leng focused on an incident at a council workshop on March 18, 2019.

Cr Leng allegedly slammed Cr Taylor's laptop shut on her fingers, according to the panel's report.

Cr Taylor said she had received first aid and counselling in relation to the incident, which was reportedly witnessed by Cr Lisa Rowntree and council executive David Mosel.

Cr Leng disputed the allegation, saying he had only “flicked” the top of the screen and said “shut that bloody laptop”, believing Cr Taylor was not paying attention to the discussion.

Police charged Cr Leng with assault over the matter, and he made at least one appearance at Murray Bridge Magistrates Court, but the charge was later dropped and he was never convicted or acquitted.

Cr Taylor made a second code of conduct complaint about an incident in the car park of the Karoonda Football Club on September 16.

She alleged Cr Leng had driven a car towards her in an “aggressive and intimidating” manner before swerving into a parking space.

Cr Tracy Hill, a passenger in the car, told investigators Cr Leng had said “watch this” prior to steering towards Cr Taylor; and Mr Mosel, talking on the phone nearby, said he had seen the car accelerate towards Cr Taylor.

“Oh my God, Sharon, I can't believe what I just saw,” he reportedly told the person on the other end of the line.

“I hope that wasn't the Meningie pool car.”

Cr Leng admitted to the investigator he had said “it's tempting” while the car was pointed towards Cr Taylor.

But both he and Cr Neville Jaensch, in the back seat, suggested Cr Taylor had not been in any danger.

The third complaint was lodged by former council employee Emily Morgan after a verbal altercation which took place immediately after Cr Leng's court appearance on August 28.

Ms Morgan alleged that Cr Leng and Mid Murray’s Cr Peter Smith, who was also present, had incorrectly suggested she had been sacked from her council job.

It was embarrassing that such remarks had been made in public, within earshot of a journalist, she said.

Both Cr Leng and Cr Smith disputed Ms Morgan's version of events.

But the investigation found, on balance of probabilities, that each of the three incidents had represented a breach of the behavioural code which applies to all councillors.

The panel’s full report will be published on the Coorong council’s website alongside the minutes from Tuesday’s meeting.

Councillors enter mediation as investigations continue

The Coorong's councillors have since hired an organisational psychologist to help them address their collective issues.

They have so far held two mediation sessions, which council community and corporate director Deb Brokenshire described in a report to the council as “a positive step forward”.

Cr Leng complied with the panel's recommendations that he apologise to Cr Taylor and Ms Morgan.

But he also told a council meeting on Tuesday that the investigation had been poor and that its findings were defamatory.

He believed the complaints were part of a deliberate campaign against him by Cr Taylor, current and former staff and members of the public.

At Tuesday's meeting, he tried to keep the report from being made public and threatened legal action against the council if it were published.

Still, councillors voted along factional lines in favour of releasing the report – Cr Leng, Cr Jaensch, Cr Hill and Cr Bland were opposed.

Councillors also asked staff to put a dollar figure on the cost of the investigation; Cr Leng later told Murray Bridge News it was likely to be more than $20,000.

Murray Bridge News understands that additional code of conduct complaints about the Coorong council are still being investigated, either by the governance panel – which handles behavioural breaches – or the Ombudsman SA, who looks into misconduct.

Clarifications: The quote from Deb Brokenshire came from her report to the council, not from an interview. This story has been updated to reflect Cr Smith’s denial of Ms Morgan’s suggestion. Photo: Peri Strathearn.