An arbiter was called into Wyndham City Council recently for a costly ratepayer-funded settlement of what has been labelled a ‘minor matter’ between Cr. Sahana Ramesh and Cr. Josh Gilligan.
Cr. Ramesh wrote to arbitration on the 3rd of March 2022 and alleged that Cr. Gilligan breached the Council’s code of conduct, citing ‘Treatment of Others’ and ‘Councillor must not discredit or mislead Council or public’, referring to an email sent to a resident and numerous other Wyndham Councillors.
The email sent by Cr. Gilligan read:
📧 Thanks X (member of public) . I note your opinion/feedback on good governance and public administration at Wyndham City Council. I do also note a media article (attached) by a suburban newspaper in which it was reported you willingly participated in a criminal court matter to provide a personal character reference for a Centrelink rorter that was then used by his lawyer to argue he avoid jail time. The fraud cost taxpayers more than $73,000 spanning eight years with the judge moving to jail the man, reportedly your partner, in recognition of the heinous nature of his crimes. Notwithstanding these facts, your opinion and observations on governance and public administration at Wyndham City including feedback on our draft governance rules are noted. JG
Cr. Gilligan defended his email during the arbitration hearing stating that the recipient of the mail is a ‘vexatious political activist … who has been publicly antagonistic towards my position as a local government councillor for a number of years.’ and that the emails contained ‘statements of fact’ which ‘do not surmount to abusive, obscene or threatening behaviour.’
He also provided numerous documents, primarily from social media, in which X describes herself as ‘an avid follower of council proceedings, and that X amends the theme song to the TV show ‘Gilligan’s Island’ so that lyrics reference Councillor Gilligan and other councillors in a derogatory way.
Cr. Gilligan also stated, “I would never send a response back to a – perceived in my opinion – an ordinary non-politically engaged resident but in this instance many years of questions about my employment status, the misuse of my surname, the misuse of my photo, there has to be a regard to why I would make a reference to public governance and administration and yet be lectured by someone who has engaged in years of abuse so on top of that and saying it is a bit ironic that someone would reference a character assassination when I have gone through one for some years.
Cr. Gilligan often defends his behaviours in council meetings.
Cr. Gilligan also mentioned many other personal attacks on social media by X and also noted that Cr. Ramesh was in a photo at X’s 50th birthday celebrations.
He also stated that Cr Ramesh’s application to arbitration was “likely to be politically motivated in collaboration with a vexatious political activist.”
Cr. Ramesh responded stating, “A personal relationship may exist between X and myself – regardless of the truth or otherwise behind this claim, the relationships held by X does not waive her identity and rights as a resident of Wyndham.’
The appointed Arbiter Dr. Lily O’Neill summarised that X took the email from Cr Gilligan as a “personal attack”, and it was “upsetting”.
When Dr. O’Neill asked X if she had previously made derogatory comments in the past about Cr Gilligan, she responded “Yeah, that would be 100% correct; I have on occasion described him as being childish in council chambers”. She accepted that the contents of Cr. Gilligan’s emails were true.
Dr O’Neill concluded that the very significant history of attacks made on Cr Gilligan’s character gave relevant context to his email.
Therefore she did not think it appropriate that he be sanctioned in this instance, but if the behaviour continued towards residents into the future, a sanction would be appropriate.
She did however find that Cr Gilligan did breach the ‘Treatment of Others’ standard in relation to X and that his email to her clearly did not treat her with ‘dignity, fairness, objectivity, courtesy and respect’. However, she noted that under the Local Government Act 2020 (Vic), she had discretion as to whether or not she found a councillor to have breached the standards of conduct.
She also concluded that due to the ‘very significant history of attacks on Cr. Gilligan’s character’ it gave relevant context to his email.
In another instance, an email from Cr. Gilligan which was sent to Cr. Ramesh and various other councillors stated:
📧‘I won’t be lectured to by someone who engaged in a coup for her own personal gain and divided a council right after she was accidentally elected at the top of the ballot in the ward. You chose to blatantly ignore two forms of democratic ballots – one by residents in Chaffey Ward and another by councils across Victoria.
Total LOL logic.
The ‘coup’ referred to in the email was a December 2020 Council Meeting vote in which Councillor Ramesh and others voted to overturn a recommendation to appoint him, Councillor Gilligan, as the Municipal Association of Victoria (MAV) delegate.
This resulted in Councillor Gilligan being removed as the President of MAV under MAV Rules.
Councillor Gilligan referred to this episode as ‘heartless and selfish’ by Councillor Ramesh, that ‘resulted in great personal and mental health costs to me and she has never apologised or shown any remorse for her actions.’
In relation to the ‘accidentally elected’ comment, Cr Ramesh stated that the statement was ‘designed to deliberately negate the significant time and financial contribution in the election campaign, and the thousands of local residents that by choice (and not accident) voted for me.
His attempt to justify my results shows a material lack of appreciation for the significant South Asian migrant community present in Harrison Ward that I know provided a solid base for my election results, along with my frequent public interaction that provided an intelligent and robust position in on many matters.’
Dr. Lily O’Neill asked Cr Ramesh whether she thought the email was implicitly sexist and racist?” to which Cr Ramesh responded, “Yes, it is, yes”.
However, she did not provide any evidence or further arguments on these points, and it was determined that there was no breach.
The hearing was heard in person at the Wyndham City Council office on 1 July 2022 and attended by Ms Emily Keogh, Council Conduct Officer, Cr Ramesh, Cr Gilligan and arbiter Dr Lily O’Neill.
Cr. Ramesh also called four witnesses, being:
1. Cr Peter Maynard;
2. Cr Jasmine Hill;
3. Cr Robert Szatkowski; and
Dr. O’Neill determined that the evidence of the three councillors could be summarised by saying that they all believed that the tone of Cr Gilligan’s emails was in keeping with Cr Gilligan’s email approach.
However, she did not consider whether the three councillors’ evidence added any relevant evidence to the matters subject to the two applications, whether the emails breached the relevant standards.
Dr O’Neill added that these are “not matters that should have reached the point of requiring arbitration and implored councillors to think about the expense to ratepayers, as well as the time of council staff, before bringing any more applications in relation to matters such as these.