John and Stephen are innocent!

Everyone celebrates the innocent verdict - except a bastard or two

Sack this council – there is nothing fair about Fairfield

Many members will know John Vuletich and Stephen Poulter. John is the Manager of the Building Control Branch and after 39 years working at Fairfield can properly be described as having given his life to the Council. Stephen is the Coordinator - Fire and Building Regulation and has been there 10 years.

Both are professionally well regarded across the industry, hard-working, supported by their workmates and colleagues, have never had an issue in their employment and they work in a toxic culture where there is no real control over councillors getting down and dirty in operational matters that are none of their responsibility.

Now, two reports, establish that they are innocent.

Fairfield has always taken the view that employees involved in development should do “whatever it takes” to assist applicants to get an application across the line and to ensure final compliance with the conditions of consent. This has been the culture since Fairfield had dirt roads. It’s notorious.

That culture has tolerated the inappropriate involvement of councillors in operational matters. Despite that being clearly prohibited since the 1993 Act - and prohibited even more so by a succession of Codes of Conduct prepared by the Division of Local Government. But the culture seemed to work okay until the politics got in the way and the politicians wanted to nail another politician, and if that meant collateral damage to employees, so be it. Even loyal and well respected employees like John and Stephen.

Both were suspended in May in a vindictive and harassing action with allegations of “gross incompetence”. Both were found innocent of the charges by the Council’s own independent Investigator but were suspended, all up, for 15 weeks.

Let’s be clear, because when an employee is suspended by a Council, there is always an assumption that where there is smoke there is fire. At Fairfield, there was no smoke, there was no fire, there was nothing but a complete misunderstanding of their roles by people who should know better.

The purpose of this article is to set the public record straight. John and Stephen did nothing. They were not guilty of doing anything wrong, no incompetence, certainly no “gross incompetence” as it was alleged, and no breaches of any Code of Conduct. Their offence, if it can be called that, is that they were both involved in ensuring the compliance of a development where the developer was an ex-liberal councillor, and now an “independent”.

The current coalition in power at Fairfield is an unusual alliance of Labor and Liberal. The Mayor is Labor, the Deputy Mayor is Liberal and the traditional hatred between these antagonists has been put to the side because if there’s one thing that Labor councillors hate more than Liberal councillors, and Liberal councillors hate more than Labor councillors, it’s “independents” who previously were Labor or Liberal.

So, when a question arose about the compliance of a development by an independent councillor, here was an opportunity to pursue that councillor with legal action and, if employees got in the way, tough. Not much protection from management here. None at all, actually.

But while the politicians are one thing, pandering to those politicians is another. Someone decided, or more than one person decided, that the two employees should be suspended - and having been totally and overwhelmingly exonerated in this tawdry process, the allegation of “gross incompetence” should be more accurately pointed at the competence of the people making the allegations, than the employees subject to them.

Not only did someone, or some people, understand so little of how the compliance process worked that they got involved in this folly by suspending and making allegations that were fundamentally wrong, but when an independent Investigator chosen by the Council cleared the employees and pointed to the responsibilities of one or more people more senior to John, someone, or some people, found that result so politically unacceptable that they paid a barrister to review the reports to try to find sufficient flaws that the findings and recommendations could be put aside. So much for giving your life to the Council.

And while a soft Industrial Relations Commission allowed their barrister almost three weeks to read two reports of less than 200 pages, (let’s hope he doesn’t start reading War and Peace) he couldn’t find any flaws in the original conclusion that the two employees had nothing to answer. So the Council had no choice, the employees really were innocent.

But the process itself exposed a range of problems at the Council that, we suspect, were also the subject of findings and recommendations by the Investigator. We don’t know for sure, because the Council has only provided us with the findings of innocence against the two members concerned, but we do know that someone more senior got a good kicking in the findings and recommendations. The Council is happy to provide the findings and recommendations on the innocent, but clearly won’t provide the findings and recommendations on those who were guilty.

A toxic culture, a disdain for building surveyors (and also for environmental health officers by our observations), disrespectful treatment by management, an overwhelming imperative to judge everything by “what would the councillors say?” and tolerance for councillors having their hands into everything. What a great place to work.

Our members at Fairfield met and unanimously carried a resolution calling for John and Stephen’s return; the development of policy and procedures like most councils that complement the bare bones of the Code of Conduct and, particularly, requires a written request to the GM for contact with staff and the reasons for the contact; the mediation of the toxic relationships under management in the Development division and a review of staff numbers - a review that would deal with, amongst other things, why the numbers of planners have increased over the years, but the numbers of building surveyors have declined.

But the most important issue is the absence of policy and procedures to regulate contact between councillors and staff. All that Fairfield does is provide a list for councillors of people who they can contact direct and councillors have historically made phone calls, multiple times a day, to the designated person and demanded that they come immediately to the councillors’ room where, invariably, the councillor sits with an illegal builder or someone else having a compliance/regulatory issue, and where members are pressed to find a lenient solution.

The Division of Local Government has already recommended to the Council in their April 2013 Promoting Better Practice Program Review Report that “the Council needs to develop policy and procedures relating to staff/Councillor interaction as a matter of priority.” Apparently, of the 93 Councils that have been through the Better Practice Program, less than 20 don’t have appropriate policies and procedures that have been agreed to by the general manager and the Council. Unfortunately the DLG doesn’t make councils improve their practices, just makes recommendations. Soft, the DLG?

But despite this urgent recommendation, the Council rejected it, suggesting that their current practices were appropriate. And why wouldn’t they? If the councillors are invariably developers themselves or related in some way to developers, why would they hand back their ability to be involved in operational matters that the staff are involved in?

A dispute originally filed by depa about the suspension process has now broadened into those issues which arose from the suspension and the Council’s own inadequate processes. The USU and the LGEA both support our call for the development of appropriate policy and procedures and this now means that not only is the DLG recommending that this happen as a priority, but the three unions covering Council staff want it resolved as soon as possible as well.

When the dispute was last in the Commission on 23 August, we tendered an email from the Council where it was said the GM “has advised Council of the issue that has been raised in relation to the formal development of a policy and that it is timely that this issue is revisited notwithstanding our view that the practice we’ve adopted, in combination with the Code of Conduct, was sufficient. I understand that there was no objection expressed from Council regarding re-visiting the issue. Alan (ie, the GM) will be recommending that Council formalise its position in relation to Councillor Staff interaction, either by way of adopting a separate policy or by adding additional clarifying clauses, considered necessary, to the Code of Conduct”.

This will be dealt with by a Council Workshop on 3 September and we expect that recommendations will go to a Council meeting on 24 September. The Commission adjourned the proceedings noting depa’s right as an applicant to have the dispute relisted with some urgency if the meetings on 3 September and/or 24 September don’t sign off on a policy and procedures to protect staff.

When the three unions met with the Council on 1 August, we handed over a list of 10 examples of unacceptable Councillor/Staff contact. Here is the list, read it, be amazed and grateful you don’t work at Fairfield:

1. Phoning from the Councillors’ Meeting room “requesting” members of staff to come to the meeting room to meet with development proponents and property owners seeking concessions regarding certain council actions and/or assurances of speedy assessments/concessions on development control standards. This has occurred where the councillor is the developer and/or has a relationship with the developer or owner.

2. Attending site inspections when members of staff are undertaking inspections and/or investigations when the councillor is the developer and/or has a relationship with the developer or owner.

3. Attending court to pressure council staff and the Council’s solicitors to drop prosecutions.

4. Twice phoning a member of staff demanding that they leave a site of illegal building to provide assistance/protect the property owners.

5. Threaten members of staff that they will go over their heads and have them “in trouble” if they don’t do as they say (as recent as 30 July 2013).

6. Pressure junior staff at the front counter to make decisions or provide assurances beyond their delegations.

7. Insult staff in front of members of the public during meetings.

8. Seek access to numerous documents with unrealistic timeframes.

9. Seek either the reduction or deletion of fees applicable to applications/inspections.

10. Provide parking permits in Council’s CBD carparks to friends - restricting the ability of staff to park in CBD areas due to limited parking.

A courageous Manager Governance has fixed item number 10 but the other nine examples (and there are multiple examples for some of them) continue. In the week when John and Stephen returned to work, on John’s second day he received a phone call from a councillor demanding that he leave a meeting he was involved in to come to the councillors’ room to fix a problem and Stephen was told by councillor at a community event, that certain things had better happen or someone would be in trouble.

This Council should be sacked. The DLG has already identified the deficiency in the area of the policy and procedures and while the nine examples of continuing problems are horrifying in themselves, and are clearly breaches of the Code of Conduct anyway, no-one at Fairfield is game to come forward and make a complaint because of a lack of confidence about how management would deal with the complaint. It’s been going on too long and the only way to allow the GM to clean up the place is to sack the Council and start again.

The Council has agreed to provide a process of mediation to try and resolve the toxic workplace and there will be a review of staff levels in the near future.

We’ve see lots of examples of councillors behaving badly over the years. Training, sin-binning and all the other options don’t seem to work in places like this. The DLG needs to immediately do something about councillor behaviour and Fairfield needs to immediately develop policy and procedures that require, just like all the other councils, that councillors make a request in writing to the GM in the first instance, if they want to contact Council staff and to provide the reasons in writing. Then, at least, the GM knows what’s happening. It seems unlikely that the GM had any idea of the number and inappropriateness of the demands being made.

And if things don’t improve at Fairfield quickly, the Minister needs to get involved. How wonderfully evenhanded the Minister would appear if he were to sack a Council where the ruling group is an unholy alliance of Labor and Liberals.

Welcome back to work John and Stephen.

Finally, everyone out there would love to know who was responsible for the incompetence that drove the suspensions and the incorrect allegations and who was responsible for trying to have the Investigator’s report clearing our two members reviewed so that it could be set aside.

And speaking of the employment relationship and what employees have an entitlement to expect …


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