Brawling North Sydney Council seeks Governance Coordinator

Sydney Harbour Bridge

It’s an attractive proposition: scenic parkside location, flexi-time, transport allowance, work-life balance, health program, free financial advice, a social events calendar and a generous enough salary…

But it still might not be enough to lure eager jobseekers to the role of Governance Co-ordinator at North Sydney Council, the local government area that sits squarely in the middle of federal Treasurer Joe Hockey’s electorate.

The beleaguered council – which is teetering on the verge of suspension by NSW Local Government Minister Paul Toole – needs all the help it can get governing its bitterly divided councillors after recent events left them threatened with up to six months in the administrative sin bin and 14 days to respond to the minister.

Bitter political infighting, Apprehended Violence Orders, accusations of bullying and an Independent mayor who remains deeply unpopular with most of her fellow councillors (who claim she’s only notionally independent, but really in bed with the Liberals and property developers) will make the job of full-time Governance Coordinator an unenviable one at best second only, perhaps, to that of North Sydney Council’s media officer.

The governance coordinator  – who is being offered between $69,326 to $82,779 a year, 9.5 per cent super and a $1,000 a year transport allowance  – will take responsibility for coordinating meetings and committees, agendas, minutes and papers and providing governance advice and support to a council that scored a thumping 26 Code of Conduct breaches in 2012-13, costing ratepayers thousands of dollars.

The threat of suspension comes as the Baird government assesses the best way to flex its recently acquired regulatory muscle to intervene directly and from on high in the event of dysfunction. Just a few years ago the state government would have had to take councils to court to force a spill or a takeover, a bizarre situation where the government effectively took action against itself.

So far North Sydney’s Council has argued that they have been dealt with unnecessarily harshly, protesting that the Local Government minster failed to step in when there was evidence of corrupt conduct by some of Ryde Council’s elected representatives, conduct which North Sydney councillors have not been accused of.

The Council has also labelled their state minister’s response “disproportionate” and accused him of setting “a terrible precedent”, maintaining that it is a steady performer and financially stable.

Minutes of last week’s council meeting noted: “Just because councillors may not agree, or even particularly like each other, does not mean that Council is not functioning. Indeed, if that is the benchmark, most councils in NSW and around the country, not to mention the State and Federal Parliaments, would not survive the use of such extraordinary and unfettered discretionary powers.

“The ‘cut and thrust’ of local politics, the disagreements that may occur over policy issues, are not signs of dysfunction. Rather, it is a symptom of a healthy, robust and engaged governing body and community.”

Local Government NSW (LGNSW) President Keith Rhoades labelled Mr Toole’s actions “drastic” and argued he should have first issued a Performance Improvement Order (PIO) to give North Sydney councillors time to lift their game, before threatening suspension.

“A PIO would have put Council on notice, and allowed the councillors time to put in place measures to help improve their performance and relationships,” Mr Rhoades said.

“Given that this ‘Notice of Intention to Suspend’ is directed at improving councillor relationships and interpersonal issues, I’m baffled as to how the Minister can expect the councillors to resolve their differences by simply removing the need for them to meet.”

A spokesperson for Mr Toole told Government News that he was considering the council’s submission, which entreated him not to suspend its councillors, and that no final decision had yet been made.

“It’s recommended (he respond) in seven working days but no there is no set time that the minister has to make the decision within,” the spokesperson said.

If the suspension goes through, councillors are suspended from office during the period of suspension and are not entitled to exercise the functions of civic office or receive any fee or other remuneration.

It’s a spectacular fall from grace for a council previously well-regarded for its stewardship under Mayor Genia McCaffery who reigned for 17 years, before retiring in June 2012. Ms McCaffery was also the president of the Australian Local Government Association during part of her tenure as mayor.

The threat of an administrator taking the helm comes at a critical time for North Sydney, and every other NSW Council, following the Sansom report Revitalising Local Government, which recommended that a large number of councils amalgamate. It also requires most councils to submit a Fit for the Future application to access various benefits and freedoms, such as more flexibility setting rates, by proving they are well-governed and financially healthy – or at least have workable plans to be. The independent review panel found North Sydney’s financial outlook to be ‘moderate-neutral’.

The panel proposed North Sydney Council merge with Hunters Hill, Lane Cove, Mosman, Ryde and Willoughby Councils: a move North Sydney Council opposes.

Meanwhile, mandatory training for councillors is due to come up at the NSW Local Government Conference in Coffs Harbour, which runs from October 19 to October 21.

Shoalhaven City Council will move a motion that candidates for local council election complete mandatory training on the responsibilities of councillors before they nominate for election, including on the councillor Code of Conduct.

While LGNSW supports pre-election briefings Mr Rhoades said mandatory attendance could discourage potential candidates and it would be unnecessary for experienced candidates.

“LGNSW however, supports post-election induction, refresher and ongoing training for all councillors,” he added..

North Sydney Council has recently put six of its councillors through the Australian Centre for Excellence in Local Government’s course in Executive Certificate for Elected Members, a five-day course run by UTS, TAFE, and LGNSW.

The course covers areas including: councillors’ code of conduct, roles and responsibilities, community engagement, meeting procedure, planning and reporting. There is also a substantial component dealing with working collaboratively.

Government News spoke to Senior Programs Officer Geraldine O’Connor who said the training, particularly in code of conduct and meeting procedure, was invaluable for councillors and made them more confident dealing with difficult situations.

“It gives them ways to deal with these things if they have gone awry,” Ms O’Connor said.

“You’ve got a random group of people coming together… and I suspect conflict can be a cover for lack of confidence. You might not get on but how can you be professional and responsible over and above this? You have got to work together,” she said.

Training for councillors, particularly new ones and those standing on a single issue, could lead to better relationships on council as people were more prepared and felt more confident in meetings and procedures.

“it’s about shifting that thinking and appreciating that you’re going into a new role and it covers a lot of areas. Perceptions of what it means to be a councillor are often quite different from reality.”

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