FOUR days into her new role as the chief executive officer for the South Gippsland Shire Council, Kerryn Ellis is listening, learning and meeting the community she will serve for at least the next five years.
Ms Ellis set aside time to sit down for a one-to-one chat with the Sentinel-Times on Friday.

What homework did you do between when you were offered the job and when you started to make sure you hit the ground running on day one?
“I came back and met with the administrators again, and I met with the executive team and other key people like the communications manager, the people and culture manager.
“I did quite a few visits to the area, stayed overnight with family and attended some community events like the jazz festival in Inverloch, the community market in Tarwin Lower … things like that to give me a feel for the place.
“Then I did a lot of reading. I was sent a lot of background documents about the region as well as South Gippsland and did a lot of that reading before I started – all of which was fabulous. It doesn’t really prepare you fully for being on board but it’s a great introduction.”

Did you have any major learnings out of that homework?
“Mostly it was just reinforcement of things that I knew, reinforcement and expansion … just the number of community festivals that happen in the municipality and the way that the different community areas choose to express themselves as communities. I found that fascinating, really enjoyable.”

How have you spent the first couple of days on the job?
“Predominantly getting out to meet people, predominantly staff, but I’ve met a few members of the community already but I have a plan to get out and about right across the municipality and meet the main stakeholders over a period of time.
“My main focus in the first four days has been meeting with staff at all the different work sites and I’m still working through that as well. I was down at the depot yesterday morning [Thursday]. I’ve been across all our office sites. I’m heading out this afternoon [Friday] to Korumburra so it’s really an orientation, meet and greet-type process at the moment.
“And I’m getting a lot of information going into my brain. Hopefully soon there’ll be some good information coming out again.
“It’s a lot to learn but people have been very welcoming and very generous. They’ve absolutely answered my questions and shared their experiences which has been great.”

Some people would say this is a difficult or a challenging time to come into local government in South Gippsland with the legacy of the sacked council, working with administrators. We’ve got some ratepayer groups who are not necessarily supportive of some council decisions and now we have a pandemic. So, how are you facing up to all that?
“The reason I took this job and the reason I’ve taken all the other jobs that I’ve had in the recent past is my intention is to do the best I can to deliver good outcomes for the organisation and the community. There’s always challenges in every role you take and you’re absolutely right, there are some unique ones here.
“My intention will be to work with the administrators, ultimately the next council, to lead the organisation, to make sure the organisation is resilient, ready and capable to deliver on the vision of the council, whoever that is at any given time, but also to work closely in partnership with the community.
“There will always be challenges. There will always be opportunities too and I will always try to look for the opportunities to do the best work we can.”

So, when a group comes knocking on your door, and they’re not happy with a decision that administrators have made, what sort of reaction can they expect from you?
“My philosophy is generally I’m always happy to talk to people. I’m also happy to respect that people will have different opinions but I ultimately respect the role of local democracies and local councils and I respect the decisions that they make.
“At the moment, for us, that’s administrators, but that won’t always be the case. My job is to make sure the organisation is providing the absolute best advice we can to support the best possible decision-making on behalf of the council.”

How are you going to make this role your role? What changes might that mean for staff, administrators, a future council, the public?
“It’s probably a bit early for me to talk about changes because I’m still getting my head around how things are now and it’s really important to understand history from the perspective of knowing why things are the way they are, for good or bad, before you start making sweeping changes.
“But what I can say is that I will do the best I can to lead with integrity, to treat people with respect and to listen to people before I make decisions and that every decision I make will have the objective of doing the best that I can for the community and for the council. I really welcome engaging with people about that. The better I know, the more breadth of knowledge I have, the better decisions I can make.”

Can you explain the difference between the role and decision-making power of the CEO and the role and decision-making power of councillors/administrators?
“I would say that the role of the council, however it’s constituted, is to set the strategic direction for the municipality and for the organisation at a high level and then to monitor and ensure through due diligence that we’re heading down that path.
“Setting the strategic direction includes the strategy, the council plan. It also includes allocation of resources through the budget and then getting the right parameters in place like local laws and those sorts of things that set the right enabling environment for the strategy to be delivered.
“The role of the CEO is to implement the decisions and strategic direction of the council, as long as they’re lawful, of course.
“The role of the CEO is to employ the staff, lead, supervise, guide and performance manage the staff, manage the financial and all the other resources to ensure that the council’s decision is delivered.”

So you don’t get to decide who gets a planning permit and those other sorts of decisions?
“No, I don’t, and even in instances where staff do make those decisions, they are effectively acting as the council because there’s a delegation in place. The Planning and Environment Act is just one example, but [it] authorises council as a planning authority to issue planning permits. The council can delegate that authority under appropriate circumstances so effectively the officers are exercising the power of the council, not the CEO.”

There is a clear delineation between your role and responsibility and the roles and responsibilities of the councillors or administrators?

Tell me about Kerryn Ellis the person, rather than the professional.
“I’m married. I’m very close to my sister and her two children. I don’t have children of my own but I do have a niece and a nephew that I adore.
“I’m very family-oriented. My family all lives down this way – Tarwin Lower, Phillip Island, Morwell and Traralgon – which is one of the attractions for me.
“I really enjoy, in my quiet time, reading and the arts. I love biographies and I really love crime fiction, learning about the world, management stuff … anything that takes my mind somewhere different to my day-to-day life.
“I love podcasts, particularly The ABC Conversations. It’s nothing for me to be laughing my head off or bawling my eyes out as I’m driving down the road. I do love them because, again, you get that empathy into the way another life is being read.”

Why should people forgive you for barracking for Collingwood?
“They probably shouldn’t! But, if indeed they’re inclined to, because it’s made me resilient. I know about loss and disappointment and I’m compassionate because of it. I know what it’s like to have everybody hate you.”

Is there anything else you want the public to know in these early days?
“I come in here with an open mind. I’m really keen to learn and I’m really looking forward to working in partnership in all the different ways that can be done to get great outcomes for South Gippsland.”