By Cam Lucadou-Wells
Greater Dandenong Council has defended its Australia Day awards selection process after an allegation that two community stalwarts were “dumped” as Living Treasures.
Gaye Guest and Dawn Vernon had been originally selected along with former mayor Roz Blades to join the illustrious Living Treasures list on 26 January 2021, according to a selection panel member.
However the pair were left out by a second reconvened panel who selected Ms Blades, ex-mayor Youhorn Chea, artist Philip Faulks and charity advocate Teresa Rechichi.
The Living Treasure list is one of Greater Dandenong’s most revered awards. It comprises 41 names who have made a lasting impact on Greater Dandenong.
The apparent snub was revealed in a Facebook post by ex-councillor Maria Sampey, who declared it as making a “mockery of the Australia Day Awards process”.
She called for Ms Vernon and Ms Guest to be “given their Awards as Living Treasures”.
Ms Sampey said most of the award selections were made by the first panel including herself, Mr Chea and then mayor Jim Memeti prior to the 24 October council elections.
“Somewhere in the process, names were added that were not there when I was on the committee.
“This is because I believe that certain people on the new committee did not like the two people that had previously been chosen as Living Treasures and dumped them.”
Ms Sampey said the first panel decided to readvertise for nominations for the Citizen of the Year category, because it received just one nomination.
She also questioned the “special treatment” of panel member Mr Chea – who retired as a councillor prior to the October election – and was soon after voted on as a Living Treasure.
It “bypassed the rule” that a former councillor “had to be off council for at least 12 months” before being nominated.
In response, Greater Dandenong Council backed Mr Chea’s eligibility.
Mayor Angela Long, who sat on the second panel, stated that only sitting members of Federal, State and local government were ineligible.
She said the first panel requested for the readvertising of the Living Treasure category as well as Citizen of the Year and Sustainability “which was subsequently done”.
“At no stage were any of the first submissions for Living Treasures confirmed as being successful nominations.
“We … had a very low number of submissions in some of the categories the first time around due to a number of factors including the Covid-19 pandemic, so the decision was made to readvertise and reopen those.
“Further there was a signed agreement regarding confidentiality of the applications from all panel members.”
The panel had to be reconvened after the council election to finalise selections, Cr Long said.
“The three community members on the panel remained the same, so only the councillor representatives changed.
“A much higher number of applications were received as a result of the second round. In fact, 16 worthy submissions were received for the Living Treasure category alone, which was a great response from our community over the two rounds.
“All of these applications were assessed by the guidelines and the highest scoring four applicants were nominated as this year’s Living Treasures.”
Cr Long said the awards selection followed a “very rigorous and thorough assessment process”.
“As always it was completely legitimate and transparent and was conducted in accordance with the strict guidelines and procedures we have in place.
“The work of the first panel was most competently and fairly incorporated into that of the second panel and the original applications were reassessed in line with the new applications.”
Meanwhile Ms Guest and Ms Vernon – both long-standing community contributors – are caught in the middle.
Ms Guest is a trustee of Noble Park Public Hall and Greater Dandenong cultural heritage advisory committee member as well as member of many community groups.
She said this showed the awards committee needed to be independent from councillors.
“I didn’t realise it was a popularity contest. You have to take people on their merits.”
Ms Vernon is best-known as leading Greater Dandenong Neighbourhood Watch. She has received a citizens commendation award from Victoria Police and a council Good Neighbour award.
She said receiving the Living Treasure award would have been a “real honour”.
“But I don’t want a big thing about it.”