Balrananld Shire Council is in the hands of an administrator after a report found it failed to act as a responsible employer, and that councillors had undermined and threatened staff including general managers.
The NSW Riverina region council was dismissed at the end of January by the minister for local government, Shelley Hancock, upon recommendation by Commissioner Roslyn McCulloch.
Ms McCulloch was appointed in January 2019 to hold a public inquiry into Council including whether it provided a safe working environment for the general manager and other staff.
Her report, released last November, found “a regrettable history of the Council failing to meet its obligations to act as a responsible employer by providing a safe, consultative and supportive working environment”.
There was an “undeniable conclusion that council had failed to meet its obligations to act as a responsible employer, particularly in regards to the interaction between Councillors and Council staff members.
“In particular the position of General Manager at the Council has been characterised by the General Manager being the target of unacceptable behaviour in Council meetings, Council workshops and in day-to-day interactions.
“Each of the General Managers has been undermined and been threatened with dismissal by Councillors.”
Ms McCullock said behaviour by the then Mayor Stephen O’Halloran, was “overwhelmingly” the cause of the unsafe working environment.
“Part of this behaviour may be due to Cr O’Halloran’s apparent inability to prevent himself from being enmeshed in the operational aspects of the Council,” she says in her report.
“He seems to fail to understand his role as a councillor is to make decisions as a member of the governing body but not to implement them.”
Government News was unable to contact Mr O’Halloran for comment.
General manager subject to ‘unacceptable behaviour’
The report found that the position of General Manager at Council had been the target of “unacceptable” behaviour in council meetings, workshops and day-to-day interactions.
In July 2013, General Manager Chris Littlemore alleged that a councillor had described him as “deceitful” at a council meeting in the presence of other councillors.
When he tried to make a complaint about the other councillor’s behaviour, he said Cr O’Halloran repeatedly persuaded him to withdraw the complaint.
It was eventually resolved at a council meeting not to review Mr Littlemore’s contract.
In a submission to previous inquiry Mr Littlemore described working with Cr O’Halloran as one of the most stressful periods of his life, the report said.
Ms McCulloch also noted evidence from a prior report that Cr O’Halloran had failed to treat his tourism co-ordinator with respect and had improperly directed her in her duties
Cr O’Halloran also allegedly told a services officer whose husband was council’s works supervisor, “you tell that husband of yours to clean up the cemetery otherwise his job might be on the line”.
He also called an Acting General Manager a “smart arse” and said “he has to go”, and told another councillor “I have the numbers to get him”, the inquiry heard.
Need for a ‘clean break’
The report says that although the majority of issues between councillors and staff were limited to a small number, Council as a whole was unable to prevent the problems that arose.
“I believe that in order to maintain the positive work towards long term financial stability for the Council, and to protect the interests of the constituents and staff of the Council, a clean break is required,” Ms McCulloch said.
A string of previous inquiries and reports had also found problems in management and government at Council going back to 2015, the report said.
In 2016 Balranald was found to have massive operating deficits, including more than $7 million in 2013-14. Concerns were also raised about the condition of assets including treatment plants, sewage facilities and rural roads, and public land management including a waste management facility, hostel and caravan park.
Mike Colreavy has been appointed as administrator until 2024.
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