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Ombudsman investigation into Mitchell Shire Council

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Jordyn Grubisic
Jordyn Grubisic
Jordyn Grubisic is a senior journalist for the North Central Review primarily covering politics at all levels and sport with a particular interest in basketball. Since 2019 she has worked for several publications across Victoria including most recently at the Alexandra Standard and Yea Chronicle. She is always keen to hear from local community members about issues they face and has an interest in crime and court reporting.

A 72-year-old widow’s six-year bureaucratic nightmare with Mitchell Shire Council, MSC, and Yarra Ranges Council, YRC, has ended following Victorian Ombudsman intervention.

In 2016 Robyn* built on her land a structure for her son – who relies on a dialysis machine to survive – believing she had the correct permit.

However, unbeknownst to Robyn, her builder applied to MSC instead of her local council, YRC, to build a shed, listing the incorrect purpose on the application submitted without her input.

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In August 2014, MSC issued the permit for a shed which cannot technically be inhabited – a misalignment between the permit and intended-use creating problems.

Robyn never received a copy of the building permit with MSC, accidentally listing the wrong person’s contact details and name on the permit.

She also never received MSC’s notice of the permit’s expiry in August 2016.

Five months after Robyn’s son moved in, YRC received a complaint someone was living in the building.

Following inspection, YRC issued a building notice requiring Robyn to provide reasons it should not be reverted to an uninhabitable shed as authorised by MSC.

It was unreasonable for Robyn to turn the building into a shed as it would require her son to move from the building his dialysis machine had been installed in by the hospital.

Ombudsman Deborah Glass found there were factors both councils could have reasonably considered including MSC’s clerical error with the permit; Robyn’s disagreement with her builder about the permit application; and Robyn’s vulnerability.

Robyn lost her home in the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires, her husband had died a few months before building construction began and at the time of construction, her son required use of a dialysis machine for about seven hours every second day.

“I was 67 when this started, I have not been able to make decisions regarding how best to prepare for ageing,” Robyn told the investigation.

“I have suffered from anxiety and sleeplessness and related physical and mental health issues. My family member has been subjected to years of insecurity when I had wanted to provide him with a safe and secure environment.”

Ms Glass found MSC’s communication and failure to investigate or review its management of the case unreasonable, while YRC’s requirement of reapplication to extend her building order every 60 days was ‘oppressive’.

“We all make mistakes, but when they are compounded by officialdom we should expect agencies to help us find solution,” Ms Glass said.

“Our vulnerabilities should be acknowledged and reflected in how we are treated. We are all human. Behind every complaint is a human story needing to be heard.

“In attempting to resolve this tangled bureaucratic web, Robyn complained repeatedly to both councils.

“The councils did not always coordinate with each other, and at times their requirements were conflicting.

“Neither council initially demonstrated the kind of effect complaint-handling a ratepayer should expect.”

Ms Glass said MSC had ongoing legal and professional responsibilities regarding Robyn’s expired permit.

MSC previously told Robyn it no longer consented for its surveyor to issue building permits outside its boundaries with the position partially underpinned by insurance uncertainty.

However, Ms Glass said MSC had not sought specific advice from its insurer, instead basing its position on a general notice.

The investigation confirmed there were no insurance constraints.

MSC will provide Robyn with a letter including an apology, a clear articulation of her options, and a clear statement council will consider a future building permit application should she pursue it.

MSC chief executive Brett Luxford said council understood Robyn’s feelings.

“Mitchell Shire Council understands the concerns and frustrations of the landowner and emphathises with the stress this situation has caused her and her family,” he said.

“Council has operated within all legal and legislative obligations and requirements throughout the life of this complicated issue.

“We recognise however the building owner may not have been adequately informed about this permit and our written communication wasn’t as clear as it could have been.

“We sincerly apologise to the landowner for the confusion and extra stress this has caused.”

Mr Luxford said the error was not relevant to the decision making regarding future solutions for the building.

“Council has met with the owner of the building on a number of occassions to work through the issue, and we’re focused on finding a constructive solution and committed to supporting the landowner in understanding her options moving forward,” he said.

• Robyn’s name has been changed to protect her identity.

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