Ombudsman slams council response

The Victorian Ombudsman has made a scathing appraisal of Latrobe City Council’s ongoing response and assistance to an elderly couple locked out of their Jumbuk home for 19 months after a landslide swept through their property.

Mohm and Evelyn Fauzee were unable to access their 84-acre farm of 20 years after the property’s only access road, Summerfield Track – a steep single vehicle route cut into the hillside – was swept away after heavy rains on 4 June, 2012.

A subsequent Ombudsman investigation into Latrobe City Council’s failure to reinstate the road, tabled in parliament yesterday, found while Latrobe City Council continued to engage the Fauzee couple throughout the ordeal, their assistance was ineffective and fraught with poor communication.

“In my view, the council did not manage this issue adequately from the beginning,” Ombudsman George Brouwer said.

“The council did not give sufficient priority to resolving this matter, assessing all options and obtaining technical reports.”

Listed as the responsible authority for the damaged track, Latrobe City embarked on an investigation into how to restore the track, before concluding 13 months later it would not be possible nor provide access through a neighbouring property.

Staying with their daughter in Melbourne, the Fauzees complained to the Ombudsman in July 2013 about the lack of action taken by Latrobe City to reinstate vehicle access to the property.

“Mr and Mrs Fauzee told my officers that they had suffered considerable emotional distress and anxiety at not being able to access their property and belongings and to care for their livestock of around 60 sheep and a steer,” Mr Brouwer said.

“Council officers have told my investigation that they justified this on the basis that there was less urgency in that the Fauzees were living elsewhere.

“This disregarded Mr and Mrs Fauzee’s entitlement to access their property and reside in their own home.”

After commissioning a review of access restoration options in July 2013, Latrobe City pursued many meetings with State Government departments to discuss an allocation of natural disaster funding.

However in December 2013, the Ombudsman moved to propose council immediately commence the track’s reparation without waiting for government funding, advising they should attempt to recover the funds at a later date.

In response, council said it could not begin reinstatement as the landslip was still moving and that without financial assistance the “cost of completing the said works was not currently within council’s capacity”.

Unsatisfied with the response, the Ombudsman notified the Local Government Minister, the Latrobe City mayor and acting chief executive John Mitchell on 16 January of his intention to formally investigate the matter.

Two weeks later, council had restored temporary access to the property.

“I am concerned that definitive action has only been taken by the council as a result of the involvement of my office and I consider that the responsiveness of the council has been inadequate,” Mr Brouwer said.

Despite the temporary reinstatement, Mr Brouwer said the Fauzees remained anxious and did not stay at their property.

He said natural disasters were not unusual in the Latrobe City municipality, and in such situations council needed to take a leadership role and have appropriate and adequate mechanisms in place to respond efficiently and effectively.

“My investigation identified that this has not occurred in this case,” Mr Brouwer said.

In his recommendations to council, the Ombudsman called for financial compensation to be made to the couple.

“In light of the extreme delay in this matter, (I recommend Latrobe City) pay compensation … for the loss of their amenity to their home and their inability to maintain their livestock and farm land,” he said.

While Latrobe City Council said it would consider any compensation requests “in good faith and on its merits”, it said no such requests had been made by Mr and Mrs Fauzee.

The Express has been unsuccessful in current and past attempts to contact Mr and Mrs Fauzee for comment.