A message to the Minister and the Office of Local Government

Sack councillor Jilly Gibson

Local government is an industry with a significant focus on regulation. That’s what our members do. If councils didn’t properly regulate, if they sat on their hands or looked the other way, communities and the government would be up in arms and do something.

The Minister for Local Government and the Office of Local Government have, since 2013, been sitting idly by as spectators and watched the unfolding dysfunctional fiasco at North Sydney Council. A mayor elected by the electorate rather than by the council, Jilly Gibson, has one supporting councillor and nine councillors who are opponents. If “irretrievable breakdown” is a suitable ground for the dissolution of a marriage, it should also be suitable grounds for the suspension or sacking of a Council. Or one or more of its councillors.

The risk with a mayor elected by the entire electorate, as opposed to a mayor commanding the support and respect of a majority of the councillors, is that there may well be occasions when the mayor simply doesn’t have the numbers. At North Sydney, the mayor never has the numbers - whether that’s an issue about relocating and renovating offices, mentoring programs for young people, representing the Council on regional boards, keeping a mayoral car, the appointment of the general manager or whatever, it’s normally 8 - 2 with the mayor the loser.

A mayor elected by the electorate commands no greater authority nor respect than one elected by the other councillors. Yet councillor Gibson behaves otherwise – asserting that there is some greater authority, or credibility, that derives from getting a majority of those who can be bothered to vote. The Act doesn’t support councillor Gibson’s opinion.

We’ve had far too much involvement in the breakdown of the relationship between the mayor and the councillors and the mayor and the general manager. It’s a mess, we’re mad as hell, and we’re not going to take it anymore.

But not so the Minister or those in the Office of Local Government, who sit and watch the debacle unfold - happily comfortable on the fence with the pickets in places that most of us would find unpleasant and unbearable.

In 2014 the Minister required the Council to show cause why they should not be suspended. The competent, rational and effective majority got their individual acts together and were able to convince the Minister that they shouldn’t be suspended and, as a fall-back, the Minister issued a Performance Improvement Order under section 438A of the Local Government Act. Things should have been done by April but the Minister begrudgingly agreed to an extension of time.

Amongst other things, the PIO required two conflict resolution processes to be undertaken - one between the mayor and the councillors and one between the mayor and the GM - the two key relationships that have broken down. And it won’t escape observation that the only thing common to both dysfunctional relationships is Jilly Gibson. A timeframe was provided, the processes began but no resolution or compromise could be agreed in either.

So, when the Minister’s deadline expired on 22 June, the Council advised the Minister that the requirement to conduct the process had been satisfied but the processes themselves had failed.

That’s five weeks ago and in the intervening weeks these things have happened:

  • The mayor had two Code of Conduct findings of misconduct made against her. The first related to defamatory allegations and the investigator found, and the council required, that the mayor apologise. The deadline for the apology has expired and there is no apology.
  • The second of the Code of Conduct misconduct findings related to confidential information and resulted in the council censuring the mayor on 19 July.
  • The council also resolved to note other things as well - expressing their “increasing concern” that this was the third finding of a significant breach of the Council’s Code of Conduct by the mayor and their “grave concerns” that the OLG “has failed in the past to provide serious sanctions”.
  • The resolution at part 5 deals with the “duty and obligation of the Office of Local Government to promote public confidence in the Code of Conduct, the Local Government Act and good governance in local government generally”, something which is clearly not evident at North Sydney.
  • That week the local rag, a compliant conduit for the mayor, announced under the heading “Mayor shoots back at council” that the mayor would now seek whistle-blower protection after the two misconduct findings against her – claiming there was a “vexatious political campaign against her” and “misuse of the council’s code of conduct provisions for political purposes”.

North Sydney finds itself in a dreadful position. It is already, by statistics compiled by the Office of Local Government, the second most complained about Council in New South Wales, the relationships between the mayor and the councillors and the mayor and the GM are dysfunctional, the conflict resolution processes required by the Minister under the performance improvement order have failed and findings of misconduct and breaches of the code of conduct continue.

The Mayor has borrowed the Emperor’s new clothes. There is no cloak of respectability or authority provided by “popular” election and the democratic process means that if you don’t have the numbers on the Council you don’t have the numbers on the Council. Behaving otherwise puts all of local government, those who are elected to it and those who work for it, in disrepute.

The Minister under section 440I can suspend councillor Gibson and should do so immediately.

While the rest of the industry is jumping through narrowly-focused fiscal hoops to survive to the future, councils are given 40 days to comply with a variety of directions from the Minister, instant action to restore the credibility of local government at North Sydney must be taken now.

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