By Gav Ross

BASS Coast Shire Council’s chief executive was recently approved for a $20,000 raise – taking his total salary package up to a staggering $320,000 per annum.
Less than two years in the job at Bass Coast, Paul Buckley was granted the salary increase following multiple Human Resources committee meetings in September.
According to meeting records, councillors discussed Mr Buckley’s performance and salary review for over three hours total on two separate occasions.
The Sentinel-Times reached out for comment to the six councillors listed in council documents as being in attendance at the last meeting on September 23.
None responded.
The only councillor who did give his thoughts on Mr Buckley’s performance in the big chair thus far was Cr Phil Wright.
Asked what he believed had been the positives coming out of the CEO’s tenure, Cr Wright said there had been “good outcomes in setting a clear direction”.
A few examples of this, he said, included implementation of strategies from the Council Plan, a reduction in staffing costs, updating a three-month program to assist councillors in decision making and progressing with “excellent Hamlet Plans to communicate planning, studies and actions intended for every residential area.”
He didn’t agree, however, on councillors remaining tight-lipped about something as important as the CEO’s performance.
“We all have different expectation of democracy, mine is for open and rigorous discussions, where different opinions are valued,” Cr Wright said.
“I strongly disagree with the attitude that councillors should never talk about the performance of the CEO.
“It is the most important role in the municipality, funded by ratepayers and councillors, (and) we must learn to be more open.
“However, it must be objective and not become personal.”

‘Positive vibe’

In a statement provided to the Sentinel-Times through the council’s communications department, the Mayor, Cr Kimberley Brown, said the annual performance review of the CEO took into consideration “the performance criteria contained within the contract, including benchmarking of other councils.”
“Council committed itself to a process of change starting with the recruitment of the new CEO,” Cr Brown said.
“At the commencement of his role, the direction given by the councillors to Mr Buckley was to focus on providing leadership to the organisation in relation to the delivery of services and programs that are linked to the strategic direction set in the Council Plan.”
Mr Buckley said he was extremely proud of all staff.
“They come to work every day to make a difference, deliver on promises, provide efficiencies and services, and develop relationships in the community,” Mr Buckley said.
Cr Brown said the council was extremely satisfied with the performance of the organisation and senior leaders under the leadership of Mr Buckley.
“The vibe across the organisation is very positive and Mr Buckley has established strong working relationships with key partners including State Government, local tourism and business organisations, as well as attending various community groups’ meetings.
“Overall, council is extremely satisfied with the progress that has been made and we are confident our CEO has built a sound foundation on which to grow the organisation’s capacity to deliver the key objectives of the Council Plan.
“Of course, there are always opportunities for improvement and council has provided clear direction, particularly in the areas of delivering capital projects and the realisation of efficiency savings.”
As highlighted in the Annual Report, council’s financial performance included a direct savings of $2.78m compared to the 2014-15 Budget, and a $6.79m surplus against what was forecast to be a budgeted deficit of $1.55m.

Councillor fears Latrobe takeover

By Gav Ross

ONE of Bass Coast’s own councillors fears ex-Latrobe City executives taking over council’s upper echelon could be detrimental to the community as a whole.
As reported in last week’s Sentinel-Times (‘Buckley’s best, p1), four out of five of the top general manager positions at Bass Coast Shire Council have been filled with former Latrobe City Council employees who have worked in local government with Bass Coast’s current CEO, Paul Buckley, in the past.
Cr Wright believes “the current concentration of Latrobe employees increases the risk that senior staff will form a network to the exclusion of the community, councillors and other staff”.
Giving insight into how matters play out behind the scenes at Bass Coast, Cr Wright says part of the problem is that councillors aren’t encouraged to speak up on such matters.
“Despite words about community and engagement, councillors who question process and decisions are classified as disrespectful to staff,” he said.
“I will never accept that.
“Staff are paid by ratepayers and must be accountable in a courteous manner.”
Not nominating any names, Cr Wright said any councillor questioning staff performance will find themselves “on the receiving end of exclusion, criticism and poor communication”.
“There is a process for staff to complain about councillors,” he pointed out.
“(But) the process for councillors to remove barriers of control by staff must go through the CEO who typically defends the staff.”
Cr Wright said there exists a community expectation for councillors, as elected representatives of the community, to “lead and control the shire”.
That, he says, is far from the case at Bass Coast.
He says “domination by CEOs” is a problem prevalent throughout local government, “but there is no reason why it should be the norm at Bass Coast”.
“It is not easy to say if Mr Buckley will be more accountable than the previous CEO,” he added.
“Surrounded by Latrobe staff and with no sign of any infrastructure improvements, the community is nervous.”
Come next November when another council election takes place, Cr Wright believes there’s an even greater risk of bureaucracy.
“After next year’s election, the risk of more concentrated power to the CEO increases.
“There will be new councillors who will require senior staff to teach them the rules of engagement.”
As the current crop of councillors start their last year of the current term, Cr Wright is critical of the amount of projects being delivered to the community.
“Strategies are important but there is a need to deliver outcomes,” he said.
“There are limited physical projects.
“The Cowes Activity Centre Plan has an allocated budget for improvements before summer.
“This was intended to be a statement (of) ‘an action council’.
“To date there is silence, no sign of works.”
What’s the best way to combat “officer domination”, as Cr Wright succinctly puts it?
That’s easy – get involved.
“The community needs to be more active and become directly involved in question time, community based groups and letter writing,” he concluded.
“It is our environment and our shire.”