“I’ll name names if bullying goes on,” says Cr Edwards
Harassment, intimidation, bullying and even threats of physical violence by one councillor against another.
The present South Gippsland Shire Council is at risk of becoming more dysfunctional than the previous regime, if it isn’t already.
And those who attended last week’s council meeting, or watched on live-streaming, may only have seen the tip of the iceberg.
Making the claims of bullying and even physical threats is Cr Meg Edwards.
But it is believed that another of the female councillors has lodged a formal complaint against one of her colleagues over their behaviour towards her.
It was during debate about the adoption of the 2017-18 budget, specifically Cr Edwards’ attempts to scale back council’s $3.8 million exposure to the Mirboo North Swimming Pool upgrade in the 2018-19 budget to $2.3 million, that ignited the furore and shed light on an undercurrent of ill will.
Her motion, ultimately voted down by an 8:1 majority read as follows:
“That council amend the 2017/18 annual budget document to include in 2018/19 forward budget, that capital works cost for the Mirboo North Swimming Pool Refurbishment be amended to include expenditure to a total of $3,000,000, consisting of a council cap of $2,300,000 net cost, with the remainder (minimum of $700,000) to be externally sourced income contribution from grants ($200,000) existing budget and an additional community cash contribution ($500,000). The project isn’t to commence without the income guaranteed. The net cost reduction from the proposed budget of $1,300,000 to be redistributed in 2018/19 budget as follows: $600,000 extra to roads, $300,000 footpath extension program, and $400,000 to bottom line.
The suggestion was tantamount to treason, according to pool supporters.
Mirboo North resident, Cr Don Hill, was clearly agitated. You can see that on the podcast. He can be seen shaking his head from the outset, flicking his pen uneasily, writing furtive notes and finally having a brief aside with Cr Andrew McEwen.
Cr Jeremy Rich is heard to say later that Cr Edwards was simply grand-standing for her own political purposes.
Mirboo North community stalwart, Cr Maxine Kiel, was none-too-pleased either but was reserved with her response.
Cr Edwards made some opening remarks about the pool being Mirboo North’s most popular asset but she took issue with the fact that the cost of the project had ballooned out from an initial figure of $1.9m in the previous budget, apparently without explanation to $3.8m, not taking into account an offer from the community to raise $500,000.
But it was in her closing remarks that the sparks started to fly.
“I recognise that this isn’t going to get up today but what I don’t want to do is hoodwink the community,” said Cr Edwards.
“I actually find it quite astounding that a month ago we had numerous motions put to us on the fly by the same people who are now telling me that they feel sick that I have put this up,” she said.
Cr Hill then interjected with one of dozens of ‘point of orders’ at the meeting.
“She is not talking to her motion,” he said.
The point of order was upheld by the Mayor Cr Ray Argento.
“I would have loved to have brought this up previously but there were a number of councillors who already shared their positions in this item,” said Cr Edwards.
“I have been harassed by social media messages from one of my colleagues…” Cr Edwards continued until Cr Hill raised another point of order.
He said that under Section 106 of the council’s meeting rules it was the duty of the chair “not to accept any motion, question or statement which appears to the chair to be derogatory or defamatory to any councillor, member of staff, ratepayer, member of the public or any organisation and must call to order any person who is disruptive or unruly”.
“I put it to you Mr Mayor that Cr Edwards is about to be defamatory about other councillors, if she hasn’t already done so and that she is out of order,” Cr Hill said.
“Hear, hear,” said Cr McEwen.
The point of order was upheld by the mayor.
“I was not about to name any councillor,” Cr Edwards began again, but this time it was Cr Rich making a point of order.
“I don’t think that the naming of a particular councillor matters when you have passed an assertion towards any other councillor that is derogatory to your fellow councillors. I’d like a ruling on that,” he said.
It was enough for Cr Edwards to change tack and continue with her concerns that the cost of works on the Mirboo North Pool and the sources of possible funding had not been properly discussed or investigated.
“I am completely supportive of the Mirboo North Pool but we haven’t investigated the project properly. I understand that part of the reason why our cost has blown out is because of the disability access. Have we investigated alternative options of not necessarily having to dismantle all of the kiosk? Have we investigated the options for staging this?” Cr Edwards asked.
Cr Rich raise another point of order about debating what was in the budget.
“Let’s allow them to start fundraising,” said Cr Edwards in return.
“Let’s allow this to trigger applying for funds.”
However, in the end only Cr Edwards voted for her motion and the budget was ultimately passed with $3.8 million going into the forward plan.
Of course it will need to be confirmed in next year’s budget process when the shire will also consider additional works on the pool.
Cr Edwards subsequently provided a copy of the statement she was reading from, part of which was cut short when her council colleagues wouldn’t grant her an extension of time.
“I’ve been subject to social media messages from a colleague to the point of harassment and another has attempted to intimidate me with a physical threat if I didn’t support their view. Neither bothered to respectfully ask what my position was and why,” Cr Edwards said in her statement.
“Emails that I have shared with councillors on other items have in the great main either been ignored or rudely responded to, claiming that I need to bring up items in their ‘councillor only’ forum, a gathering in which the worst, unseen bullying is taking place,” she alleged.
“Actions from these forums have not been clear as to whether they have had the majority of councillors’ support and only once, when I’ve attended these exhausting sessions, have I finished a sentence without been shouted over the top of.
“In an ideal world, where collaboration means more than a word that is bandied about when it suits the individual, all motions and amendments would be shared, but in the environment I find myself in, even if I had tried harder, what could that have been achieved? I have shared my intent with councillors who had not already indicated a position on this budget item.”
Cr Edwards said later that she stands by her comments.
“I haven’t named any names this time but take it on notice, I will name names through the proper channels if it (the poor behaviour) continues. I’m calling it out for what it is,” Cr Edwards said.
“Some of the councillors are doing it and it’s got to stop but I’m prepared to give them a second chance.
“Calling it out might not be ideal because it’s likely to be detrimental to the council but I weighed it up and not calling it out is worse.
“Becasue it is happening and it’s atrocious.
“They’re on notice that if it does continue without redress, I will name names, not in the press, but through the proper process.
“In my book you can have a debate about the issues, but they are debating me rather than the issues.
“You don’t have to denigrate the person to get your message across.”
Cr Edwards conceded the issues she raised weren’t raised in isolation, but she wasn’t prepared to confirm or deny that there was a formal complaint about the behaviour of one councillor towards another that, as yet, remained unresolved.
“I shared this with other councillors (Mirboo North Pool concerns) and I tried to raise is at a briefing in April but got shouted down.”
Cr Edwards claims on one occasion she was in the kitchen at the council meeting room, after the issue had been raised at the closed session, and one of the councillors walked in saying “f—ing Meg” while discussing aspects raised in the debate.
Another had warned her that she would no longer get any votes in Mirboo North because of her stance, questioning the pool funding.
“I’m saying ‘hey rein it in’ or it will be going down the formal process or higher,” said Cr Edwards, indicating legal action was an option.
Workplace safety an issue, CEO
SOUTH Gippsland Shire Council CEO Tim Tamlin has acknowledged that “workplace safety” is an issue around the council table.
He made his comments in response to concerns raised last week by Cr Meg Edwards.
“Yes we are very much aware of what is going on,” Mr Tamlin said.
“A week or two ago we organised some council support and we’ll be running a training session for them on appropriate behaviour, focusing on how their interactions should be.
“My role as workplace manager is to ensure that bullying or intimidation is not happening in the workplace,” he said.
Mr Tamlin said there had also been a review of the workplace safety policy which would also be coming back to council soon.
Asked if he was aware of a formal complaint by one councillor against another, he said it was an issue for the Mayor Cr Argento to deal with.
Asked if he thought councillors could do with some training on meeting procedure, he said reviewing the livestreaming of the meeting could be used for that purpose.