THE South Gippsland Shire Council has got another unfolding crisis on its hands.
Such is the level of anxiety among staff at the troubled shire that a permanent, onsite EAP counsellor has been appointed to deal with their concerns.
According to a shire whistle-blower, who spoke exclusively to the Sentinel-Times this week, that counsellor “has noted strong signs of anxiety, depression, PTSD and trauma” for a significant number of staff members as a result of the behaviour of the shire’s councillors, the likely departure of CEO Tim Tamlin and the hiatus over the council’s possible dismissal by the State Parliament.
It didn’t help last Friday that one of the most highly regarded council units, its Home and Community Care team, was disbanded and officially left the shire’s employ without a single word from the Mayor Cr Don Hill.
Some of them have been serving the community for over 35 years.
The employee has gone public this week not only to make the community aware of the situation for staff but also to make an impassioned plea for them to draw a distinction between the behaviour of the councillors and the strong level of commitment shown to the community by shire staff.
“Staff have been working in stressful circumstances and under pressure for a sustained period of time and it is impacting on Council’s ability to attract and retain good staff,” said the whistle-blower.
“A number of staff have withdrawn services or are actively avoiding direct contact with councillors. We would query whether staff should be repeatedly placed in situations where their health and wellbeing is compromised.
“In the private sector this would not be tolerated,” the staff representative said.
“Those on the frontline are reporting increased aggression from the community who often fail to make the distinction between councillors and the administration. Unlike neighbouring peri-urban shires, many staff at South Gippsland are also ratepayers; they live and work in the community which is becoming increasingly hostile towards them.
“Stress leave applications and resignations have escalated. It is likely to impact on WorkCover insurance, at a cost to ratepayers.
“Some roles have been unable to be backfilled which has resulted in increased workloads for remaining staff who may not have the capacity, skill or attributes to do the work. This in turn is impacting on service delivery.”
The staff member said numerous others are seeking alternative employment.
“EPA (Employee Assistance Program) counsellors have been appointed and are currently providing onsite counselling to all staff, a number of whom are showing signs of trauma, depression and PTSD.
“Termination of HACC (due to a change in Federal Government policy) and Shared Services is also impacting morale.”
It’s a serious state of affairs at South Gippsland and while the whistle-blower said staff members had been offered resilience training and were supporting each other, directors and other team leaders were getting tired.
With the departure of 40 HACC team members on Friday, morale hit a new low.
The source of the problem, it is claimed, is the inappropriate interaction between councillors and staff including councillors yelling at meetings, talking down to staff and criticising staff.
In October last year, a councillor was ordered by council resolution to provide “individually addressed written sincere apologies to each of the staff members involved” following numerous complaints.
The whistle-blower even went so far as to suggest a specific councillor, who the person named, had carried a difference of opinion with a staff member at work through to criticism of that person at a community group where they were both members.
It has been further alleged that a councillor racially vilified a staff member.
CEO raises concerns
CEO Tim Tamlin has reinforced the concerns of the staff on Gippsland ABC Radio this week claiming that one of the shire’s gardeners was abused by passersby three times last week.
He has repeated calls for the community to draw a distinction between the political arm of the shire, its elected council, and the administration, who he said and continuing to fulfill their roles.
For Gippsland South MLA, Danny O’Brien, who has previously called on the Local Government Minister Adem Somyurek to act, the crisis among shire staff members is the last straw.
“These matters with respect to staff are very concerning and should be equally concerning for a government that professes to care about employees,” Mr O’Brien said.
“I’ve been calling on the Minister to release the report of the monitor appointed by the government to oversee the council to provide some clarity on the situation for residents and ratepayers.
“We have all had enough of the “he said/she said” situation and we want the council – and the staff – to be able to move on, one way or another, and deliver good governance for the shire.
“As I did in State Parliament last week, I again call on the Minister for Local Government to release the monitor’s report and make a decision on the future of the council one way or another.”
It is understood that the Municipal Monitor Peter Stephenson delivered his final report to the Minister late last week after some clarification was sought by the Minister.
Further it has been reported that shire CEO Tim Tamlin met with the Minister in the past week.
Following the public meeting in Leongatha recently, Minister Somyurek repeated his concerns about South Gippsland, specifically addressing claims by former councillor Meg Edwards that she had been followed home.
“I am deeply concerned with the public allegations made about the behaviour of some councillors at the South Gippsland Shire Council,” he said at the time.
“I have referred the public allegations to the Local Government Inspectorate for consideration and investigation as appropriate.
“It would be inappropriate to make any further comment about the allegations at this stage.”
Staff angst is likely to place even more pressure on the Minister to act.