A report has recommended better support for the health and safety of local government CEOs following an investigation into a “culture of wariness and mistrust” at a regional Victorian council.
Municipal Monitor Janet Dore this week handed her report to the local government minister after being appointed to observe governance and functioning at Wodonga City Council.
The report says after 12 months of disruption at the council – including the loss and replacement of two councillors, the resignation of a CEO, and a changeover of Mayor and Deputy Mayor – both Council and its administration now have an opportunity to move forward.
“However, it is imperative that respect for each other and an understanding of the clear role of separation … is practised,” she adds.
‘Aggrieved’ CEO resigns
Ms Dore was appointed in April 2022 to observe issues at Wodonga, five months after the acrimonious resignation of CEO Mark Dixon.
Ms Dore said Mr Dixon told her resigned in November 2021, in part because he felt his leadership wasn’t accepted or respected by some Councillors.
“He was aggrieved about the circumstances which impelled (in his view) him to resign,” she said.
Ms Dore said tensions had emerged between the staff and some councillors because of councillors challenging the advice of staff during Council meetings, creating an unsafe workplace.
“When undue pressure is applied to staff to change their advice by frequent questioning, the assertion of allegations based on opinions rather than fact, and derisory commentary during debate, in my view these actions have the potential to create an unsafe workplace for staff,” she said.
Her report also found no evidence to substantiate swirling allegations of undeclared conflicts or bias around family links and political party membership, which had contributed to poor working relationships.
“It is fair to say that allegations of conflicts of interest and bias pervaded the Council group and the senior executives all of which had a negative impact on working relationships,” Ms Dore said.
She said the main causes of the difficulties within Council were ultimately due to “mistrust and differences in personalities, styles, and ego”.
This isn’t uncommon in any community, the report says, but in the absence of strong leadership it can have a serious impact on governance.
Wider issues for sector
Ms Dore says there have been improvements at Wodonga City since her appointment.
These include clearer definitions of the roles of mayor, Council and CEO to ensure “councillor behaviour can be moderated or challenged ‘in the moment’, and to protect the CEO and senior executives.”
She also says gaps in the employment conditions of a CEO in the Local Government Act need to be looked at.
“Whilst the Act … gives authority and responsibility to the CEO for managing interactions between council staff and councillors it is often a delicate balance due to the contractual arrangements which enable dismissal without reason,” she said.
“The position of CEO is not covered by Occupational Health and Safety legislation and, as the only employee appointed by Council, should be protected through clear accountabilities of the mayor and councillors.”
Local government minister Melissa Horne said while the report notes positive changes in the council’s performance there are also some areas for further improvement in governance, culture and conduct that can be applied across the local government sector.
Local Government Victoria is reviewing the report as part of its ongoing efforts to improve the performance and governance of Victorian councils, the minister said.
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