By Michael Giles
THE South Gippsland Shire Council virtually signed its own death warrant last Wednesday, September 26.
They’ll almost certainly be dismissed now, or at the very least suspended, after the State Election on November 24, in a carbon copy of the Wangaratta City Council dismissal of September 2013.
It can’t happen any sooner because the Local Government Minister needs to introduce legislation into State Parliament to do so, and Parliament has already met for the last time before the election.
But the council went a long way to causing its own demise at last week’s council meeting when they decided to make public a cryptic council resolution about a “personnel matter”, while also releasing the ‘Risk Assessment and Control Measures’ matrix which relates only to “problematic behaviours” by councillors.
In so doing they confirmed public suspicions that the “personnel matter” relates to complaints about one or more councillors in their dealings with other councillors, staff members or third parties including members of the public.
Such dealings might include “sending emails which are abusive, aggressive, demeaning or contain inflammatory statements”; abusive or demeaning interactions with staff; poor behaviour at functions or inappropriate phone calls.
We understand that the “personnel matter” actually relates to one councillor involving multiple complaints by staff members against that councillor with action already being taken internally under OH&S arrangements to protect staff by limiting interaction with the councillor involved.
However, unlike the situation on August 24, 2016, when there was a willingness by council to take appropriate action against the bad behaviour of a councillor, when Cr Kieran Kennedy was suspended for a month and ordered to make an apology, allegedly over an objectionable email he sent to the CEO Tim Tamlin, there appears to be no such willingness from a majority on council this time.
In fact, the proper procedure would have been to not publish anything at all about the investigation until such time as it was completely wrapped up and an appropriate penalty decided, agreed to and the matter closed.
Instead of doing that, the council, or a majority voting block on the council, has demonstrated its inability to deal with a serious councillor behaviour matter and workplace safety situation, while opting to trivialise and politicise the process by focusing attention on the $69,000 cost of the process to date, not including “lost productivity costs associated with the significant hours in senior officer administration time, staff and councillor interview time”.
We understand that because of the threat of litigation by the councillor involved much of that cost has entailed, and continues to feature, legal advice.
Publicising the cost, though, is clearly an attempt by interests within the council to criticise, by implication, the efforts of the CEO Mr Tamlin to properly deal with the matter. However, by its inaction, it is the council itself that has left staff exposed to the unresolved workplace risk and the ratepayers to potential damages claims.
Interestingly enough, the faceless councillors who backed this indefensible position declined to register their names when voting for the resolution.
Here’s what the then Local Government Minister Jeanette Powell said about the Wangaratta council in 2013:
“The Rural City of Wangaratta Council has failed to meet its legal obligations to provide a safe workplace by allowing a culture of bullying and intimidating behaviour among some councillors towards staff to grow, impacting on staff wellbeing and leading to a large number of staff resignations.
“Bullying behaviour towards fellow councillors has resulted in one councillor resigning after taking WorkCover approved sick leave and in two other councillors threatening to withdraw from some council activities.
“The Council’s failure to govern effectively has seen $1.5 million of ratepayers’ funds wasted to date on councillor dispute procedures, Councillor Conduct Panels, legal fees, staff departures and temporary replacement staff.”
There has been no indication of staff resignations and the dispute resolution cost has hopefully not reached $1.5 million yet, although we are reportedly paying $1200-a-day for the municipal monitor, but the principle remains.
And it can’t have helped the council’s cause that Cr Maxine Kiel resigned earlier in the meeting over on-going issues of “belittling, denigrating and ridiculing” behaviour by councillors towards staff and other councillors.
Cr Meg Edwards has previously raised her concerns about bullying, and taken leave as a result, however after being endorsed by the Liberal Party, she has decided to stay, on pending on the election result.
Some councillors maintain there is no bullying and are allowing themselves to become preoccupied with the election of mayor and an allowance of $76,000 annually, set down for Wednesday, November 21 (before the State election), with Cr Don Hill emerging as the frontrunner.