Welcome to 2021! Going to work? Going to the office?

  

         The Scream by Edvard Munch 1893

Sotherby’s described one of the variations of The Scream by Edvard Munch as the defining image of existentialism, the definition of Expressionism as an art movement and the figure as “sexually ambiguous, visually amorphous and almost dehumanised”. Who hasn’t felt like that after a bad year in local government!

It’s the anguish it portrays that is so accessible and there will be anguish for many as they want to continue working from home this year but find councils unresponsive and unsympathetic - and as fearful, rigid-minded and unimaginative as they had been in the past about people working from home. But how can they get away with this? One of the few positives from 2020 was the debunking of the distrust of one-dimensional managers who believed people working from home weren’t productive.

We know that now to have been discredited, that the evidence across the state has been that productivity was high, commuting times and car emissions were massively reduced, the sky was clear and the planet a happier place. There was flexibility for families and family responsibilities. Win/win.

But there will be lots of anachronistic managers with policies and attitudes to working from home that won’t allow sufficient flexibility, or even the discretion to exercise it, and not game to try different ways of working.

As we all get vaccinated and the pandemic slows, or disappears, working remotely can be dealt with on its merits, not because it’s an essential public health step, but because it’s good for workers and good for productivity. How will councils deal with this - with open minds, accepting the evidence of 2020, or like local government Donald Trumps asserting “alternative” facts? There are facts and there are fallacies, there are no alternative facts. (Donald who?)

Whether it’s back to the office, or the home office, or a combination of both, the end of the school holidays is next week, those of us who took leave over December and January have to come to grips with getting back to work and it won’t be like normal holiday breaks where you can talk to workmates about where they went on holidays, or where you went, because we haven’t had our normal options of a carefree January.

The Sydney Morning Herald on 14 January quoted a psychologist warning employer lawyers that a lot of workers will still be burnt out because the break hasn’t been long enough to recuperate. And it’s been punctuated by outbreaks in the northern beaches in particular and other parts of greater Sydney that have kept us masked and weary. The other side of the Great Dividing Range and up and down the coast is almost a sanctuary in comparison.

Here are some suggestions for a better start to the year, with a few employment observations rolled in:

  • Be positive, encourage yourself that “you can”. Research supports the idea that positive self-reinforcement leads to success and productivity, reduction in stress, high confidence and a happier life. Let the good times roll.
  • Change things to make a difference. Where have you wasted your energies on things you can do differently? Are there better places to work, can you change the workplace to make it better, or are there other options?
  • Start the day with an achievement- walk, swim, yoga or a stretch. Doing it early puts you in a positive state.
  • Stick to your working hours and more sustainable and family-friendly work and don’t fall into the trap of working longer and longer. If there’s work to be done, maybe you need better resourcing? It’s the Council’s responsibility to get the job done, not your individual responsibility. As long as you’re doing your job effectively and in the hours they pay you for, they can’t ask for more.
  • Schedule face-to face-time with colleagues when you get back, either online or in the office. If you’re a manager, acknowledge all the hard work and accomplishments from last year. If your manager doesn’t do this, get everyone to mention their failure at the next staff meeting!
  • Arrange your next break. No one gets the post-holidays blues if they’ve got another holiday in February, or March...
  • Make a checklist, and include on it even the easy things. That starts the workday with a positive reinforcement of having ticked things off already.
  • Take your annual and long service leave as it falls due. That’s what it’s for.

And by the way, Sotherby’s described The Scream (as quoted above) in 2012 when an 1895 version was being auctioned and sold for US$120,000,000. Yes, that’s US$120 million, about AU$155 million. Central Coast will be regretting they didn’t have a couple of versions lying around they could sell.

 

         The Scream by Edvard Munch 1895

Good luck and high hopes for a better, safer, vaccinated and more satisfying 2021.

                                                                                                                                                                          

That’s it for us

And that’s also our last Santa pic. My son Ben with a socially-distanced Santa, as a final reminder about how everything had to change in 2020. We’ve all had enough, and we get the feeling from talking to you lot, so have you.

The office will be closing at the normal close of business on Wednesday 23 December and will be reopening with Margaret and Lyn on Monday 4 January and that will be Margaret’s last week. And I’ll be back on Monday 11 January.

On behalf of the three of us in the office, and the Committee of Management, we wish you all a well-deserved break from a frenetic and different kind of year, happy and joyous times with friends and family, a great Christmas and New Year and we can all hope for the best and look forward to a different, and more normal 2021.

Thank you Margaret, and welcome Lyn

Margaret Bayliss has been our reassuring and capable Office Manager since 2014. Margaret knew a lot about us, having previously worked for the AIBS, including more than 15 years ago when depa, the AIBS and AIEH all shared an office at Birkenhead Point.

She was able to continue long-standing relationships with our building surveyor members and her easy gregarious nature meant she could create new relationships right across our membership. And she did.

Time to retire and we all wish her well. And, as a final contribution to our continued success, she has found us a worthy successor.

Lyn Gall has been working part-time in December being trained in the membership system, our accounts, our role and what we do, and how to put a depaNews together.

Since we mentioned Margaret’s retirement in the last issue of depaNews there have been many members contacting her and wishing her well and thanking her for her contribution over the years. We will miss her.

And please welcome Lyn next time you email us or ring.

2020 depa awards for the Worst HR in Local Government

This is the 12th year that the prestigious and envied Golden Turd will be awarded.

How’s HR been this year?

2020 is a year to forget. Bushfires, flooding, climate change evidence everywhere but still deniers, and then a world pandemic that started quietly in February and March continues nearly everywhere and in Europe and the US rolls on, vengeful, punishing of those not taking it seriously and with an unbelievable death toll. In the US they are already well past 300,000 deaths.

COVID-19 was always going to provide a challenge to us. LGNSW and the three unions in record time (a fortnight!) developed a Splinter Award to protect employees, provide flexibility to move people into jobs that would still be done and continue employment which, together with NSW Government funding, meant that everyone continued in employment. Sure, councils encouraged employees with too much accumulated leave to take some (always the employer’s fault anyway for mismanaging it) but the job losses were minimal and generally related to pre-existing financial problems.

A novice GM at Lismore (but one not lacking in confidence) went off prematurely advising three of our members that they would be made redundant, then had to withdraw that advice and go through the process properly - making it a more unpleasant way to lose your job.

Cumberland wanted the unions to agree to employees forfeiting some entitlements which were individual entitlements anyway, and if anyone was going to forfeit them, it had to be the individual employees. Our members rejected the general approach and invited the Council to individually request the sacrifices be made, because that was the right way of doing it, but the Council chose not to...

The City of Sydney, consistent with being nominated more than any other Council in these awards (six times prior to this year) decided to pay the July State Award increase by administrative action and at the same time advise all staff that there would be no progression this year in the salary system. While they might have been working hard in the performance year about to end, that was tough and those who would normally be recommended for that progression won’t get anything - affecting, according to HR at the City, up to 1000 employees. Lovely. Very motivating.

Then there were issues with councils failing to move employees to work remotely. Clarence Valley was slow, of course, and at Bayside not only did their triage team call the pandemic over on 29 June with congratulations in their last newsletter, “We made it to the other side!”, then in shades of Dumb and Dumber, the Council ignored the advice about social distancing by stating “there is no requirement when desks are facing opposite directions. In fact it is actually safer than desks side-by-side as breathing/sneezes are in opposite directions”!  It sounded like a hoax, or an HR joke, but it wasn’t.  Thanks, Dilbert…

And Sutherland, because it seems the CEO just can’t help herself, a polite email from depa to the HR Manager Amanda Edwards encouraging a speedier relocation of employees to home was handed for action to the CEO - who then thought it made sense to frogmarch our delegate up the street and point out the queues outside Centrelink, to establish that she was trying to avoid that.

Our poor delegate didn’t even know we’d emailed the HR manager (whose contribution is always immeasurable) and found it all largely inexplicable. No wonder we picked up 24 new members in three months after the CEO had been appointed.

Otherwise, Councils did what they could, staff took equipment home or used their own devices, local government services continued without interruption, and more safely from home. This established once and for all that those old farts hostile to employees working from home won’t be able to simply assert that productivity is compromised, or that employees can’t be properly supervised, because the evidence is in and it all worked seamlessly. And yes, that includes you lot at Mid Coast.

That will be our big issue for 2021. Building on the evidence that employees can work effectively from home. Here is a link to an article in the Sydney Morning Herald earlier this week about the division between employers and employees over working from home rules.

And finally, the three unions and LGNSW were able to negotiate a new Local Government State Award to operate from 1 July and a pay increase of 1.5%. We thought that a good deal and in the month prior to making the Award we were anxious that the Full Bench of the IRC was also arbitrating a pay claim by the public sector unions in the face of a NSW Government refusing to pay anything. There was a chance it could have affected us, but we were able to provide independent economic advice that the increase would be positive, rather than negative to the economy of the State and was consistent with the IRC’s obligations.

But got away with it we did, and our colleagues in the public sector, including those working in bushfire, flood and COVID management were given a miserable 0.3%. That made our Award look even better.

We have listed a few councils already who probably fall short of a full nomination. We could have added Lake Macquarie, because they have demonstrated again (as they did to be nominated in 2016) they’re not very good at handling an investigation, they can be seriously insensitive in managing staff and indoctrinating them in the new ways of doing things, the new language they use and organisation charts with circles!

Now the dishonourable mentions are out of the way, there are four nominations:

Campbelltown

 

Jim Baldwin is Campbelltown’s Director of City Development and has been for more than 25 years. He’s worked for a number of GMs over that time, so he’s clearly doing something right, but it certainly isn’t looking after his own staff, and the Council’s obligations to them.

Campbelltown has been nominated twice, in 2016 and won it in 2018. In 2016 it was all about a succession of consultants’ reports identifying understaffing and a failure by the Director to act; a  general notoriety for taking two years or more to fill vacancies; the longest-running restructure in the world had a member acting in a managerial role as a temporary appointment for more than double the 12 months provided as an absolute limit in the Local Government Act; when Jim did try to get the recruitment happening, policies and protocols went out the window, candidates were invited for interviews without identifying what the interview was for (and one occasion it was for two positions, as a bit of a surprise); an employee acting in a manager’s job twice, for two years each time and eventually not getting the job, and when he appealed, he responded to a request for an “interview” that turned out to be his appeal.

A significant lack of respect for employees, Jim.

In 2018 it was Jim again and we acted for two members being made redundant rather than take bigger jobs for no more money, or lesser jobs, and where one of the Managers hadn’t been provided with a performance review by Jim for three years! And when he did take the redundancy, the Council wouldn’t let him stay for the few weeks to celebrate 30 years there! Not quite as bad for the other Manager we acted for, but disrespected and mismanaged as well.

This year we acted for a third manager - this one had agreed in 2017 to take on some additional responsibilities from another job they were making redundant - nine staff and responsibility for $25 million a year of waste contracts - when he agreed, Jim was going to fix up his salary and now, three years later, after multiple reminders that drove our member into the ground, he finally got something. But he had to get us to act, and for a person totally committed to the Council it was uncomfortable for him to get the union in, as it were, because the Council was failing to do the right thing.

We make all of our best decisions with hindsight but everyone can learn from this. If the Council wants you to do more work, to take on more responsibilities, don’t forget the famous line, “show me the money”! Get it all cleared up right from the start.

We finally settled but not as much as it should have been and when the Council agreed to a special allowance “in recognition of your service in the capacity of Manager”, while the allowance applied from January 2017, the Council refused to increase it in line with movements in the State Award - meaning that each year, it reduced in value. Really, why quibble over such small amounts of money.

Campbelltown doesn’t index their market allowances (and it’s about time that some of the co-dependents out there decided to do something about that) but HR specifically made our proposal that it be indexed from 2017 to the GM, who rejected it, agreeing only that it would be indexed from the 1 July 2021 increase. All this fuss for $445 over three years! Really, Lindy!

It must be hard to keep your motivation up, particularly as a loyal employee who wanted only to do the right thing by the Council, but some important lessons have been learned, and will be salutary for others there:

  • Campbelltown doesn’t value you as much as you value their reputation,
  • they will take advantage of you and make you do all the hard work for as little as they can,
  • being devoted to the Council doesn’t mean you get treated fairly
  • if its your own entitlements, don't waste your time talking to Big Jim.

Narrabri

Yes, yes, we are sufficiently imaginative to find a new image for the multi-faceted Stewart Todd - GM extraordinaire and President of Local Government Professionals (sic) - but here is one last fling. Well, probably.

And yes, everyone knows about how he sacked Tony Meppem and then when we filed a section 106 Unfair Contracts in the Supreme Court, argued that the Court didn’t have jurisdiction to deal with it - and lost, and had our costs awarded against the Council.

The exercise did confirm the Supreme Court had jurisdiction but that taking section 106 action in the Supreme Court, while prohibitively expensive, is even more prohibitively slow. Almost a year from the hearing to the handing down of a judgement confirming the jurisdiction. 

In the meantime, GM Todd made the Manager of Environment redundant (happy to flee to the relative safety of Tweed) and then, the Manager of Building decided he’d had enough of life under the benign leadership of GM Todd and fled to Moree.

That’s a lot of expertise and experience gone with those three.

And it wasn’t just our members having problems. The USU acted for one member who had filed a grievance alleging bullying, and in the process GM Todd agreed with the USU to sign a Joint Statement against Bullying, something he never did, and then he restructured and made that employee redundant as well...

It’s a miracle there are any professional staff doing the health, planning and environmental work at all. So GM Todd, who won it last year, gets a nomination this year as well.

He almost deserves two nominations, one for being responsible for HR at Narrabri, and another in his role at Local Government Professionals (sic) you know, the old Local Government Poseurs, doing his best to retain standard contracts for senior staff other than general managers and then wanting to make some changes to the GM contract. Self-interest is clearly a great motivator.

And it still fascinates we spectators in the industry that members of Local Government Poseurs, the overwhelming majority of whom are not general managers, think it makes sense to voluntarily be a member of an organisation so hostile to continuing employment, and not term employment, at all levels in a Council. And the defence of a contract that allows people to be sacked “for any reason”, without a requirement for prior mediation and advice, or recourse to a speedy and practical tribunal.

Snowy Valleys

Last year Snowy Valleys GM Matthew Hyde was nominated for the unprecedented action of sacking all three directors - completely without warning and under the “for any other reason” 38 weeks’ pay provision of the unfair standard contract - and all to clear the decks for a new structure. What it did was remove three long-standing, highly experienced and well-respected senior staff with significant local government and corporate knowledge. It also cost the local community more than $350,000 in termination payments and more than a year later the restructure remains a work in progress.

This year Mr Hyde decided that the position of Division Manager Development & Environment could be merged to take over additional responsibilities and staffing but with no extra money. Clearly an unacceptable option and on this occasion the employee concerned, with more than 40 years of building surveyor experience, became another redundancy.

There is a pattern here, isn’t there. Experienced people, significant losses, and significant costs to the community.

Our positions have remained unfilled for up to 12 months. Even an employee leaving with six months’ notice so the Council could find a replacement doesn’t get a recruitment process happening in time for a replacement, and at the same time, the expectation that the work continues to get done with reduced resourcing.

Two experienced members have just resigned from the Council, both complaining that the director doesn’t understand their legislative obligations and one having been told they are “too legalistic”. It’s hard not to be legalistic when everything you do is governed by law.

There are complaints about the obvious staffing shortages; failures to recruit and the stress on remaining staff; obsolete policies and procedures; a lack of commitment to the Council’s core values of “Respect, Safety and Integrity” (!); significant delays in undertaking performance reviews; no respect for the timeliness required by the Award for reviews and progression; a failure to communicate to internal applicants left wondering what is happening as jobs get advertised, then removed; a continued lack of respect for experienced technical/professional staff and the value they can provide mentoring and advising; no communication about proposed changes to PD’s, nor to the responses of staff to them, and a general failure of communication in all aspects of the operations of the Council.

That’s a terrible list but also being told by the Executive Director of Community and Corporate, a director without qualifications in the areas being managed, that employees are “overly constrained by legislation and need to learn how to step outside it... quick to disregard matters not being part of their role... and difficult to deal with”. Charming.

The Council has just lost one of their last two accredited certifiers. Accredited certifiers have a parallel accountability - to the Council as their employer but also to the BPB/Fair Trading as a condition of their accreditation. The accreditation regime requires that certain things be done to remain accredited but Snowy Valleys is failing in its obligation to compile and supply mandatory data.

Look out Matthew, one day Fair Trading will come a-knocking.

All of these are significant staff management and HR failures for which the GM must take responsibility. Matthew is also a member of the Board of Local Government Poseurs and with a track record like this, and starting with sacking three senior staff, the next thing we’ll hear is that he’s been appointed President!

Sutherland

CEO Manjeet Grewal and former Mayor Councillor Pesce

We began the year with a member being told that the Council wanted to remove her position from the structure and make her redundant. Originally employed more than a decade ago as a Change Manager to assist a restructure, she had remained, with the Council taking advantage of her exceptional managerial skills to take whatever job the Council wanted her to do, and do it extremely effectively. She was, as they say, great talent and it seemed inexplicable that after all these years they would want to get rid of her.

That was an unpleasant start. At the time she was relieving in a position of Tree Team Leader managing what is one of the most political issues the Council deals with each year with more than 4000 tree issues. This, along with DAs was not normally dealt with by the Council until the new CEO Manjeet Grewal thought it made sense to reintroduce tree issues for council involvement. They now occupy around 30% of every Council meeting - about the only time the two sides get to have a go at each other.

As the year continued, our member was made redundant but in a process that was poorly managed by HR and the CEO. First, the position of Tree Team Leader was being filled extremely capably and since she was removed, the Council has, because of their stupidity, had to advertise the job four times, with each successive ad raising the salary to attract some decent candidates. They had been told, of course, by people who knew what they were talking about, right from the start that they needed to pay more to attract. Four separate ads and recruitment processes, a vacant position for nearly a year, and all of the reduced efficiency and cost that involves. HR wasn’t listening and clearly didn’t understand the concept of a market.

Then, when there was an opportunity to be seconded to a related grant-based activity run by a related trust, the Council refused, insisting that she leave as a redundant employee, or transfer across to that new job and forfeit her redundancy payments, even though the job was only guaranteed for two years. A bit rough, did you say?

Then, the spectacle of our delegate being marched up the street by the CEO with her grim determination to point out to him the queues of those recently out of work while she was trying to keep him out of just such a queue. She wasn’t trying very hard to keep her “casuals” off the queue because this folly was almost immediately followed by the removal of employment for casuals across that wide range of activities affected by the NSW Government’s Public Health Order  - around 300 employees. We supported the USU and their dispute in the Commission pursuing appropriate redundancies for people who had been called casuals but had often been employed more than five, ten or more years. For reasons none of us understand, the CEO felt obliged in the IRC to explain that she had consulted with depa, when what she actually meant was she had dragged our delegate up the street. No one can believe she thought that appropriate behaviour.

And while this is going on 24 new members joined depa, all alarmed at the treatment of our member with her redundancy, the news about our totally innocent delegate and then, the piece de resistance, exposing the CEO, the HR Manager Amanda Edwards and even the Director of Development Peter Barber, that offensive phone call on 4 June by Councillor Carmelo Pesce, the Mayor at the time, with its unacceptable language and tone, the lead story in our November issue.

In 2017 when Councillor Pesce had similarly abused a member of ours, the GM at the time Scott Phillips (come back, Scott!) recognised that the behaviour was unacceptable, a breach of the Code of Conduct and inappropriate. And within 24-hours of our member making a complaint, had the Mayor meet with the GM and the member, apologise that he shouldn’t have done what he did, he’d been having a bad day, and it wouldn’t happen again.

So, when it did happen again with the Mayor in a conversation to a different member of ours on 4 June, there was already a precedent set to get the Mayor to acknowledge his unacceptable behaviour and apologise. But that didn’t happen.

Instead, not much happened. We became involved, a dispute was filed; there were two compulsory conferences in the IRC that, because the Council wanted this all to be entirely confidential, were confidential; a Conduct Reviewer was contracted to conduct an investigation into four potential breaches of the Code of Conduct and the process went on and on. All the time with limited advice to us and the member concerned about what was happening when all we really wanted was to have Councillor Pesce (by this stage the former Mayor) recognise he had done the wrong thing, apologise to our member and get on with it. You still owe him an apology, Carmelo.

Employees deserve better protection than this from the CEO and HR. It is unacceptable that the CEO would fob off legitimate concerns of her staff right from the beginning. It should have been fixed in June. And after a preliminary finding by the Conduct Review telling us there was nothing to see here, she’d dealt with the matter, she’d spoken to the former Mayor, and that was that. No apology. No acknowledgement. End of story, as far as she’s concerned.

This won’t be the end of the Sutherland story.

Sutherland wins our 2020 award for having the worst HR in Local Government

It was daylight second really, with a broad range of failures in HR, a plummeting morale among staff and a chronic failure to protect employees and provide a safe workplace. An apology, and some kind of acknowledgement would have resolved the issue far more effectively.

Who has the worst HR in local government?

Our December issue and our prestigious awards are enthusiastically anticipated by the industry (and sometimes dreaded by those responsible for unacceptable HR practices) and the December issue will, as usual, publish the 2020 Awards.

And our usual end of year good wishes, the last family pic with Santa (that’s a relief) and news about our closure over Xmas/New Year.

It will also provide a proper farewell to Margaret Bayliss who has been our highly compatible and effective Office Manager now for close to seven years. Margaret has decided to retire at the end of the year. And we can introduce you to our new Office Manager.  

Resourcing the NSW Building Commissioner

Back in February a flurry of media releases announced that the Building Commissioner would have a staff of 75. It was announced that NSW Building Commissioner David Chandler “is looking for architects, engineers, site managers, certifiers and other industry experts to help weed out bad practice in the apartment construction industry.” This is a picture taken after the Premier Gladys  Berejiklian had announced that unlike her own personal behaviour, she believed in builders and developers applying the rules assiduously. Clearly the Building Commissioner thought that hilarious and even the current Premier is in on the joke.

Further tight regulations were promised but it’s hard to find out what’s happened about the recruitment of the 60 - and anything else about the intended 75 members of staff.

If you go to the Building Commissioner’s site you can watch podcasts but the closest thing you can find to an employee is Reg, who has his own blog “What would Reg say”.

Reg is the Building Commissioner’s “Mascot and Oracle”.  https://www.nsw.gov.au/nsw-government/projects-and-initiatives/building-commissioner/what-would-reg-say .

Reg has quite a lot to say but he doesn’t say the most important lesson that every investigation into building standards has established - namely that if you want a reliable job done by someone not paid for by the developer, you go to a Council. Even though he says “Don’t associate with risky players. Consider the company you keep. We’ll be using powerful matching technologies”, as advice to certifiers, at some stage the Building Commissioner needs to come to grips with the fact that the only certifiers without a conflict of interest are those employed by councils.

And if you happen to know anyone who’s taken a job with the Building Commissioner, please let us know.

Speaking of building, the proposed Design and Building Practitioners Regulation 2020 is now out for consultation.

Here is a communications package for those of you who are interested.

What’s Lyall been doing?

We’ve been fascinated with Lyall Dix since the 1980s when, as an officer in the Department of Local Government, he was the prime mover setting up opportunities for councils in the old Local Government Act to contract work out. And then to generally start developing proposals for private certification.

Lyall has had more penalties imposed by the BPB than any other certifier, sufficient that he’ll never practise again, and he still holds the record for the biggest fine - $50,000 in 2012. But he continues to operate in a business called the Dix Gardner Group that does regularly find itself in the news for the sorts of things that had the BPB stripping Lyall of his accreditation.

On 18 October the Land and Environment Court ruled that a half-built luxury house at Seaforth on the Middle Harbour hadn’t been constructed according to its development consents, was encroaching on a neighbour’s property and was in need of emergency works to make it structurally stable. And as the Herald observes,

”To top it off, a sandstone block wall was erected on foreshore land that belonged to Transport for NSW, the court found”.

“Council told the court that there were two unauthorised balconies and an unauthorised staircase, a lift shaft in the wrong location and openings in the master bedroom and ground floor that were never approved.

Excavation and geotechnical piles were being installed under the house that were never included in the plans, the Council said. Those activities gave neighbours the impression an illegal third story was being built.

Council found the awning, staircase, terrace and pool were all encroaching onto a neighbour’s property and there was a question as to “how lawful access to the front door will be gained”.

The unlawful works were carried out under the watch of notorious private certifier Stanly Spyrou of the Dix Gardner Group, who is currently serving a five-year ban for allowing people to move into to other buildings posing a “hazard” to occupants.”

The shocked owner now needs a new development application with Northern Beaches Council.

How much longer will the NSW Government allow people stripped of their accreditation by the BPB/Fair Trading to continue to work running a business employing others?

Transparency vs Confidentiality - a tale of two cities

It’s one thing to be disappointed about Sutherland when the curtains were pulled, the blinds were drawn and the screen of confidentiality was erected by the CEO so that no one knew anything about what was going on, what complaints had been made and by whom (not even in the IRC) when there was already a transparent and quick solution available, but what do other councils do?

In May a member of ours was abused on the Facebook page of the Wagga Wagga Daily Advertiser by a councillor. No stranger to Code of Conduct complaints, which he regarded as a badge of honour, but at Wagga Wagga a proactive GM, supportive of the staff and good governance acted immediately to have the councillor delete the posting and then, after complaints from depa, the employee concerned and others, to immediately contract a conduct reviewer to conduct the Code of Conduct investigation.

The Code itself requires a degree of confidentiality about investigations to ensure an investigator can have confidence that there has not been collusion between witnesses but at Wagga Wagga we were not only advised by the GM that the investigation process had begun, but were contacted in writing by the conduct reviewer who kept us advised of the process, within those confidential guidelines, so that we knew it was being properly managed and the complaint would not simply disappear or be ignored.

And when it was concluded, we received a letter from the conduct reviewer identifying the recommendations, which included a censure of the councillor and reference of the complaint to the Office of Local Government, so we understood the process had been conducted and its result. The councillor was censured by the Council consistent with the recommendation of the conduct reviewer and the entire complaint has been forwarded to the Office of Local Government for further action.

Wow, what a significantly different approach to Sutherland - one where employees can be comfortable and confident about the process because of the transparency. Confidentiality is important in an investigation but the Code of Conduct should not be managed by a Council behind closed doors. Not at Wagga Wagga do they do the “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain”, thing.

There is more confidence in a process that is transparent.

If you Google transparent versus confidential you’ll see much information about the delicate line between the two and where it should be drawn. Confidentiality is not meant to be an excuse to hide the process.

Councillors behaving badly

For more than two decades, we’ve dealt with councillors behaving badly at a range of councils and at Parramatta, twice. We’ve had members place bans on councillors who have abused or criticised them in public or attempted to bully them and even had disputes in the IRC protecting the well-being of our members.

 How councillors behave is regulated by the Code of Conduct and the Procedures associated with it, but it all comes down to common sense, respect and being civil.

As simple as that may seem, there are occasions when councillors don’t do that, and when they don’t do that it, it falls to the GM to manage it and fix it. We’re happy to remind the GM of their responsibilities and to act if the GM fails to manage it.

Sutherland Shire Council has 15 councillors - seven Liberals and seven Labor with one independent, now the Mayor. It’s a bit like the Cold War with the two sides facing off but on this occasion it’s the Libs with the behavioural problems. Well, one Lib in particular.

In 2017 that councillor felt obliged to vent to a Manager who was a member of ours about his dissatisfaction - three f***ing, one sh*t and one I’m pissed off. A complaint was made, and within 24 hours the GM at the time had pulled the councillor in, had him recognise what he had done was unacceptable, had a meeting with the councillor and the employee concerned, the councillor apologised, the apology was accepted and hands shaken. No role for HR, fixed within a day. Well handled, Scott. Everyone at Sutherland misses you.

But on 4 June this year, the same councillor felt obliged to again vent to a supervisor under the already abused manager. This time, two f***ings, one sh*t and one pissed off. A new GM, not as focused or assiduous in the protection of staff as the predecessor, let it simmer. We wrote on 27 July, almost 2 months later, and on being ignored by the GM filed a dispute two days later.

The GM, or CEO as Sutherland prefer, wanted it all to be confidential as a Code of Conduct complaint investigation, even though we’d not made a complaint under the Code. This compromised the ability of the IRC to manage the real issue, the Council not prepared to say anything useful when we were involved in proceedings, preferring to speak privately to the Commissioner and finally, an investigation by a conduct reviewer was established.

 At no stage of this process did the CEO Manjeet Grewal tell us what was being investigated, whether there were multiple allegations, if there were what they were, whether they had paraphrased our requests into a code of conduct complaint (where we would have been the complainant, and would have had some rights about the process) or someone else was. Nor would she disclose who was being investigated until pressure from the IRC squeezed out that none of our members were being investigated or at risk.

The investigator spoke to employees and concluded that in a range of potential allegations (none of which we had made) that the councillor’s behaviour was indicative of a breach of 3.1(g) of the Code of Conduct prohibiting “harassment or bullying behaviour” but was insufficiently serious to warrant a further investigation. If our allegations had been formalised into specific complaints for investigation we would have been consulted on how to resolve it. We weren’t. We were told:

The CEO had determined to resolve this matter by way of explanation and informal discussion. This action has now been completed. No further action will be taken. Therefore Mr (name deleted but the supervisor) will not be provided with a written acknowledgement from (councillor’s name). Council has undertaken a process to satisfactorily resolve this issue to ensure that the appropriate standards of behaviour are abided to”. (sic)

That’s easy to say, isn’t it. No apology from the potty-mouthed councillor, and no acknowledgement at all from the councillor that their behaviour had been in anyway unacceptable. This is completely unacceptable, any employee harassed or bullied by a Councillor needs that councillor to have the unacceptable behaviour acknowledged to them and an apology extended. Ordinarily, the Council would be advised of what was going on and kept in the loop on the investigation and any penalties.

How hard is it to apologise, to clear the air and let everyone get on with it? We all try to teach that to our kids as a core value but it’s not a fundamental or valued approach at Sutherland. The CEO might claim it’s “satisfactorily resolved” but no one else has any confidence that it has been.

Clearly the CEO wasn’t going to help, so on 22 October we wrote to all the councillors outlining what had happened in 2017 and 4 June (without the polite asterisks we’ve chosen to use for fear of offending) and asked the councillors to make this commitment:

I agree that employees need to be treated with respect consistent with the Code of Conduct and give my undertaking to not only comply with the Code of Conduct, but in particular, to speak in a civil and professional way with staff and never use a raised voice nor unacceptable language.

We specifically used those expressions to identify what was wrong with the bullying and harassing councillor’s language and tone. The councillors themselves were not aware of the dispute, or the abuse, bullying and harassment leading to it other than by accident or misadventure. The CEO had decided that no one needed to know, there was nothing to see here. And they’re still not aware beyond what we told them in our letter.

Seven of the councillors have responded with a common commitment which avoids the specific behaviour we wanted addressed (it would seem because of an anxiety about litigation) but which nevertheless committed them, the seven ALP Councillors, to this:

I write to assure you and your members that I fully support the principle that all Council employees should be treated in a courteous manner with dignity and respect, not only in compliance with the Code of Conduct, but in order to ensure a safe, professional and non-discriminatory workplace. I regard this as a fundamental obligation for all Councillors when communicating with Council staff.

We have high hopes that the Mayor, an independent but also a Councillor well-known and lauded for his concern for staff and good governance, will join with Labor and we will have a majority of the councillors committing individually to better behaviour. But what about the rest?

Is there a reason why Liberal councillors would be less courteous, less capable of treating staff with dignity and respect and less committed to a safe, professional and non-discriminatory workplace? Why would the solidarity of the political party prevent even the most basic commitment to appropriate behaviour?

And how do employees respond now knowing that the seven Liberals won’t commit to proper behaviour? We will keep you in the loop.

Next month

  • Councillor behaving badly at Sutherland and what we’re doing about bad behaviour
  • Two different councils and two different approaches to transparency in Code of Conduct investigations of councillors
  • Lyall Dix’s company in trouble again over Clontarf fiasco
  • Update on the Building Commissioner/Commission
  • Jeeze, is that the time? The year is nearly over

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