A Tale of Two Cities

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going directly the other way…

What a fabulous opening first line for anything. It is, of course, the opening first line to Charles Dickens’ most-read book, a Tale of Two Cities, the second most popular book in the English language with more than 200 million copies sold. It’s hard to imagine a book that anyone is more unlikely to have not read.

And it’s an appropriate lead into two cities that really are the best of times and the worst of times, wisdom and foolishness, Light and Darkness...

We make Sydney’s CEO Monica Barone apologise

We’ve often remarked on the paradox which is Sydney City. Fabulous progressive policies on transport, planning, community-building, sustainability and the environment but an approach to dealing with their employees more consistent with the middle of the 20th century. How does this happen?

Nominated for our Worst HR in Local Government Awards for the past three years and a reputation sufficient for us to include in our Log of Claims in the current Sydney City award negotiations a claim to “insert claim”.

On Friday 7 October last year a couple of hapless apprentice locksmiths, employees of a sub-contractor to the contractor managing Town Hall House, without anyone knowing, started drilling fire doors clearly marked as containing asbestos to change door hardware and spilled asbestos fibres in 14 different places. This was a catastrophic collapse of procedures and protocols which resulted in an asbestos contamination in Town Hall House that put at risk the health and wellbeing of 900 employees. The catastrophic collapse included not just contamination in 14 separate places but decision-making that the building did not need to be evacuated based on incomplete and inaccurate information. The building should have been evacuated on the morning of 7 October and it wasn’t.

Employees continued to work in the building on Saturday and Sunday until the extent of the contamination was properly understood. The building was closed Monday and Tuesday with employees prevented from gaining access for the cleanup to be done properly. That the thorough cleanup required the place to be closed for two full days is evidence of the significance of the contamination and the failure of its management by both the City, the city’s contractor and the sub-contractors. A classic collapse of the contracting out model.

But getting information from the Council proved to be far from the boasting on their website about openness and transparency. Cover-up, obstruction, a dispute filed by us and listed on seven occasions in the Industrial Relations Commission where we were supported vigorously by the USU and LGEA until finally, like squeezing blood from a stone, we did get what we were looking for: a commitment by the Council that steps had been taken and what those steps were to ensure that never again will the City not know that there are people drilling holes in fire doors in their building, releasing asbestos fibres and putting everyone at risk. And, an apology from a reluctant and recalcitrant CEO.

For those interested in the gory details, here is our 20 March letter pursuing the three outstanding issues, the reply of 3 April from the Council’s solicitors Henry Davis York explaining the steps that have been taken in yet another proposed draft email for the CEO. The pressure was on, Commissioner Murphy had made it clear that if we couldn’t reach agreement ourselves on this, he would resolve it on 10 April. We responded suggesting that we needed these words added:

I apologise that this matter wasn’t handled well and guarantee you that processes have now been set up to ensure that this doesn’t happen again.

And here, significantly is the final apology issued by CEO Monica Barone on 11 April where she finishes by saying:

I apologise for any concern this incident may have caused and assure you that we have implemented processes to improve our procedures and avoid a similar event in the future.

The unions agreed with these words. We had adjourned the proceedings on 10 April with a request that it be discontinued on 12 April unless the Commission heard otherwise from us, just in case, given our lack of confidence in the way the City behaves.

The CEO’s apology to staff should have been provided immediately. It should not have required the unions to pursue her on seven occasions in the IRC and, eventually have her agree to do it because it was clear (certainly to the unions) that if she didn’t do so, the IRC would make her.

We know people make mistakes, everyone knows people make mistakes, we teach our kids that it’s better to clear the deck with an apology, but getting an apology from the CEO when clearly the City was at fault and responsible says a lot about the City that is unattractive and unacceptable.

The dispute was discontinued on 12 April, more than six months after the fiasco in October. This has been a shameful process. And, while we may have made Ms Barone do this, we still don’t have an apology from her for lying to us that we would get the consultant’s report into the fiasco when it was “completed and available” at 1:48pm when she and others at the City had it at 7 o’clock the night before. It had been in her inbox all the time when she sent two emails telling us we would get it when it was available and we didn’t get it until that evening when it was completed and available 24 hours earlier.

Sydney City is the worst of times, in an age of foolishness, in an epoch of incredulity, in a season of Darkness and the winter of despair.

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