Greater Geelong Council (GGC) and its mohican-topped mayor, Darryn Lyons, are teetering on the edge of dismissal as the Victorian government presses for their wholesale sacking today (Tuesday).
Labor is clamouring to pass the Local Government Greater Geelong City Council Bill 2016 and dismiss the entire council, after a leaked report from the independent Commission of Inquiry unearthed a culture of bullying, intimidation, harassment and cronyism within its walls.
The report, leaked to the media, said the council should be sacked because of a “serious failure to provide good government, with the council so dysfunctional it is unable to work together in the city’s best interests.”
It said: “Its standard [is] well below that expected of a city of Geelong’s size and economic importance.”
The Inquiry also denounced the council for failing to come up with a long-term vision or strategic plan for Geelong – Victoria’s second city – and found it did not answer harsh criticisms in an earlier report by former Australian Human Rights Commissioner Susan Halliday.
Problems are known to have been festering at GGC for a while and were highlighted in full technicolour in the October 2015 Halliday report, which alleged that councillors and senior staff intimidated, ridiculed and bullied other council staff and residents. It discovered that 135 cases of bullying – including of residents – had not been dealt with.
An employee survey found that nearly one-third of council staff said they had been subject to or witnessed bullying within the council chamber or workforce.
Victorian Minister for Local Government Natalie Hutchins said the council had seriously failed to provide good governance and needed to be removed immediately.
“The council is unable to provide the long term vision and leadership required,” Ms Hutchins told Parliament.
She said Geelong Council was “riven by conflict and characterised by a significant number of councillors contravening the Code of Conduct.”
“[There was a] deep-seated culture of bullying and organisational failures,” she said.
Labor MP Lisa Neville, who lives and works in Geelong, said: “The fish is rotted from the head down. We need to transform this organisation. The issues are so systemic, the lack of leadership is so great … unfortunately I don’t believe it’s possible for at least three years.”
She said businesses had been put off from dealing with the council over the years.
“This council has set us back. This council is embarrassing. This council does need to be dismissed for the sake of the economy and the well-being of the people of Geelong.”
The new Bill recommends:
• Sacking Geelong councillors
• Appointing an administrator, or panel of administrators until the 2020 election
• Asking the Victorian Electoral Commission to turn single member wards into wards represented by multiple councillors
• Amending the Local Government Act 1989 to promote closer liaison between the mayors and CEOs
• Creating a new position of Deputy Mayor
Mayor Lyons told the Geelong Advertiser recently that he was “no saint, no Mother Teresa”, but denied he was a bully and maintained he did not deserve to lose his job. He said his “passionate and forthright demeanour” could have riled some people and been misinterpreted as bullying. He was elected in 2013.
Meanwhile, Nationals and Liberals MPs accused Labor of “gagging debate” and called it “a profound denial of natural justice” in a “kangaroo court” that sidelined the people of Geelong.
They said that the government was trying to hide something and seeking to rush through the debate in two-and-a-half hours before the Opposition had been given time to consider the 120-page report, which many had received only one hour earlier.
Greens MP Sam Hibbins suggested the state government could give the house longer to debate the proposed sacking and use its powers to suspend the council for 100 days instead.
Opposition Leader Matthew Guy has accused Labor of mounting a sustained and politically-motivated attack on Mr Lyons, who is an Independent, saying the party was fearful the high-profile mayor could topple Labor federal MP Richard Marles in the next election.
While the Victorian government is champing at the bit to dispense with Geelong’s Mayor and councillors, the problems appear to go deeper and have infected some council staff too. It is unknown what the bill will do – if passed by the Upper House – to address these, although Ms Neville said administrators would guide this process.
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