More good directors sacked - a real bloodbath at Snowy Valleys

We’ve reported already to members about the decision by Narrabri GM Stewart Todd to sack our member Tony Meppem from his position of Director of Development and Economic Growth in February this year - another victim of the dreaded “no reason” termination with 38 weeks’ pay in lieu of notice.

It is poor public policy, dreadful opaque governance and a waste of public money to have an employment arrangement that allows a GM to sack other senior staff without reason. We’ve been arguing this with the Government for decades now and it’s unarguable now that the standard contract allows employees to be unfairly sacked. We’ve lodged an application under section 106 Unfair Contracts of the Industrial Relations Act in the Supreme Court, listed for hearing on 15 November.

The first argument will be a challenge by the GM at Narrabri of the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction to hear our application. The GM is an all-or-nothing kind of bloke but you do have to wonder why a first-time GM who has come up through the ranks, would want to deny senior staff the capacity to challenge their contract or their sacking.

And as the GM is also the President of Local Government Professionals (sic) it’s hard to imagine that they don’t believe there should be some jurisdiction somewhere to test the fairness of contracts and the appropriateness of sackings. LGPA is the old Local Government Managers and an organisation we’ve ridiculed over the years for not really knowing whether it’s an industrial organisation when it wants to dabble in award negotiations, or a professional lobby group when it wants to do something else.

The unions have more members who are general managers than LGPA and general managers themselves are in a distinct minority within the organisation and make up only four of the ten positions on the Board of Directors. We wonder, again, how this reflects on any policy positions about fairness in employment and job security. Time will tell but we see a potential conflict of interest here, don’t you? It is an important issue, because they will lobby the Minister and OLG about employment arrangements if they want to and they will be conflicted in developing a policy approach with GMs potentially wanting to retain unfair sacking of those below them, and those below them thinking it is appalling…

This is the GM’s quandary - wanting fair treatment of senior staff (and particularly GM’s) but at the same time wanting to retain the right as a GM to sack other senior staff unfairly and without reason.

Then, only in the last two weeks, Snowy Valleys GM Matthew Hyde (and surely it can’t be just a coincidence that he is also on the LGP Board) sacked all three directors, appearing on local television with some bushie councillors justifying the sackings on the basis that at some stage in the next nine months they will have a new structure to replace them. Blood everywhere and lots more than $300,000 spent with three lots of 38 week payments.

There are complications with Snowy Valley - there is a serious rift between councillors from former Tumbarumba and others on the merged body, there are public meetings at Tumbarumba (the last attracted more than 300 locals) calling to secede and the Council with a vast capital works budget will find doing it properly without three directors and their history and corporate knowledge will be a challenge.

We’ve had unfortunate experiences before with Mr Hyde. We had to file a dispute for a member with pre-merger entitlements on training from his days at the former Tumbarumba. It was a totally unnecessary dispute with totally unnecessary pressure (and even oblique threats from an acting Director) but Mr Hyde was not prepared to resolve it by making one phone call or email.

All he needed to do was contact the former GM of the former Tumbarumba and ask her about the entitlements of staff to training. She would have told him she developed a policy that provided serious funding of all costs of traineeships which meant that Tumbarumba may well have been the only Council in the state without any vacancies in its professional positions. Snowy Valleys were unable to find any of the multitude of documents about our member’s entitlements, the agreement signed with the GM, memoranda from the director supporting the arrangements or anything else.  

A simple phone call would have done it, but the GM wouldn’t. And then when we did and the former GM provided us with a letter endorsing our member’s entitlements, Mr Hyde lived up to his name and got all stroppy with the former GM about breaching confidentiality (which she hadn’t done) because the policy and processes were transparent and available. Threatening confidentiality of documents and processes when they are no such thing must be close to the last refuge of the scoundrel.

No Matt, it was a public policy available for everyone and a simple question would have saved the discomfort and angst for the employee, our time, your time with those ludicrous letters getting longer and less comprehensible every time, and the time of the IRC. For a bloke whose “Vision” on the LGP website is that he wants to “give back” to the industry and the profession, he wasn’t trying very hard.

So when our Director at Snowy Valleys was invited to meet with the GM, who is going to travel from Tumut to Tumbarumba, at 6pm on 13 August, and asked to bring his laptop, he asked what the meeting was about. He was told “various or a number of matters”, he asked again and he was told it was about his “future employment”. That’s always a warning, when someone who can sack you wants to meet and talk about “your future employment”, what they really mean is “your future unemployment”. Beware.

And then bang, at about 6pm he was provided with a letter terminating his employment under the dreaded 38 weeks and no explanation. An option available for the GM only because the unfair contract provided for it.

Both the sacking GMs appear to relish the process and emphasise they can do it, so they will.

The next day he sacked the other two directors, one at a time, and again without reason. There is a hostile way, and a less hostile way of going about a process like this, and when you sack your three directors, with no notice or discussion and don’t tell them that you’re doing it to the three of them, and why you’re doing it, Mr Hyde chose the hostile approach. The directors discovered they’d all been sacked when it was announced to staff and became a hot item on ABC Local Radio and then Prime7 Local News. Totally unnecessary for three good directors.

We are about to start renegotiating the current 2017 Local Government State Award and the three unions have included in their logs of claim the return of senior staff (other than general managers) to proper protection under the Award and the abolition of term employment. This is something that has been discussed with representatives of LGNSW and the Office of Local Government, and even raised with the office of the Minister for Local Government, and there is general consensus not yet formalised but the time is ripe. Everyone is recognising the unfairness of some of these sackings and regretting that while the system was always modelled on how the NSW SES operated, when the SES changed four years ago to transition the overwhelming majority of senior staff to continuing employment, no one flowed this into local government. It might have been the model when it was set up, but the model has changed to remove term employment.  

Yet, the relevant Minister for Local Government at the time and the OLG haven’t reflected the widespread transition to continuous employment in the State, to local government. They should have done that already.

And when the ICAC in their report into Mid-Western Council in October 2016 raises their concern about “no reason (that is terminated by the councillors without a reason being given to the employee”) creating the possibility of GMs being forced to do things or be compromised by councillors and, equally, senior staff being forced to do things or compromised by the GM, that should have given the OLG a nudge.

Everyone’s expectations are that when the ICAC hands down its report into the former Canterbury in Operation Dasha later this year, they will address the corruption and compromising risks that accompany contracts that allow termination with “no reason”.

It’s time this was fixed.

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