Sack this Council - there is nothing fair about Fairfield Part 2

Members’ ban helps to resolve Fairfield’s predicament

Sometimes organisations with ineffective management need the employees themselves to do the things that management seems incapable of doing.

Last month we revealed the disgraceful exercise of suspending two innocent members which, in turn, exposed a long history of unacceptable councillor/staff contact. We provided 10 examples of unacceptable contact and clearly neither the GM, the directors, the Manager Governance, the Public Officer, nor HR were aware of any of them. Ignorance isn’t always bliss.

No-one wants to look like the Bishop of Maitland when the hard questions are asked.

There are a number of the advantages of having a policy to regulate councillor/staff contact which requires requests for the contact to go to the GM.  The Division of Local Government recommends to councils that don’t have a policy or procedures identified and signed off by the GM and the Council that they should do so as a matter of priority. Like they did at Fairfield in April this year and which the Council refused.

Requiring a written request to the GM will weed out a lot of requests. It would be hard for a councillor to request contact because he wanted to squeeze an employee into a more lenient approach, or not proceeding with a fine, or tolerating illegal building or poor fire safety or at risk food premises.

More importantly, the GM would have an idea of how many requests are made, what sort of things are being requested and, in a better practice policy, the GM could decide whether the contact be provided or not. It’s all part of being the GM, responsible for the day-to-day running of the Council and the management of staff.

But if you are a GM who wants to remain blissfully ignorant of your councillors approaching staff, pressuring or encouraging them to do things they would not otherwise do, then not having a policy and procedures would be perfect. But perfect to cocoon a GM who doesn’t want to see or hear evil, but bad governance, acknowledged to be poor practice in local government and a failure to do the job properly.

But you would have thought, wouldn’t you, that when the DLG recommends that the Council adopt a policy as a matter of priority and when we expose the extent of unacceptable councillor/staff contact, and we get them thinking about reviewing their rejection of the DLG recommendation, that they would start to understand why a policy is necessary. Even councillors. Even the Mayor.

On 23 August in the Industrial Relations Commission, the Council committed to arranging a Councillor Workshop to consider the issue with an expectation that any changes to current arrangements would be recommended to a meeting of the Council on 24 September. The Council that day also agreed to keep the three unions in the loop and to consult as this process involved. But while there was a presentation to the Councillor Workshop, no one thought it appropriate to provide that presentation to the unions so that we knew what was happening.

The only advice we received was after we had already raised an issue about councillor contact with the GM by email. So a response to our request, and not all consistent with keeping people in the loop.

But it could not have been a very effective learning experience for the councillors when only two days after the workshop, a member of ours, our delegate no less, Stewart Rodham, was directed to attend a meeting in the Mayor’s Office. Immediately.

No specifics were provided, even though they were requested, and he was told the file and all the papers were already there.

We know of no other Council these days where an employee would turn up to find that an angry complainant was sitting with the Mayor and wanting the Mayor to do something about the administrative fee he had been charged for a notice under the Protection of the Environment Operations Act, and the subsequent fine for failing to comply with that notice. The Mayor directed the employee, as the team leader of the EHO’s, to review the fine.

Clearly the Mayor doesn’t understand what is acceptable and what isn’t. Not only was there no request of the GM, not only was the relevant Group Manager not present but the complainant was. All the Mayor was doing was demonstrating how powerful and important he was by being able to drag whomever he wanted into his office and make representations on the polluter’s behalf. Please review. No wonder local government gets a bad reputation.

If the Councillor Workshop two days earlier had properly dealt with what is acceptable and what isn’t, or even those parts of the Code about influencing staff, someone wasn’t listening.

This was compound by a vaguely imprecise request to 2 of our members that when they were next on a specific site inspecting illegal building that may result in a demolition order, a councillor would like to attend. What for, we wonder?

 But depa members to the rescue. While Stewart waited for a reply to an email he sent to his immediate supervisor and everyone else in the reporting line all the way to the general manager asking for a written direction about what to do, our members met and imposed a ban on attending meetings requested by councillors unless the request had been made to the general manager and the relevant group manager also attended.

Not so much a ban, or industrial action, more the introduction of a helpful administrative practice that the feet draggers and dawdlers in management at Fairfield couldn’t quite do themselves. Even with encouragement from the DLG.

So we wrote to the GM asking him to respect this helpful approach and advise the councillors that this would be how requests for contact would be dealt with in the future but, he didn’t respond, so we filed a separate dispute on this specific issue and we were back in the Commission on 13 September.

Friday the 13th wasn’t unlucky for us because we left the Commission with an agreement with the Council that the councillors would be told requests needed to be made to the Group Manager and any subsequent meeting needed to be attended by that Group Manager as well. Nice.

But there was no way we could convince the Council (and their representatives spent an adjournment of nearly an hour on the phone to the GM trying to work out what to do) that the GM, or the relevant director should be involved in this process at all. We would have been happy for an email to be CC’d to the GM but the GM didn’t want to know. And the GM didn’t want his directors to know either.

But while the agreement wasn’t quite the arrangement we wanted, Vice President Walton took the view that this was an interim arrangement anyway until the Council adopted policy and procedures consistent with the Code. We could live with that.

VP Walton also made it clear to the Council that it should consult with the three unions and that meant that the unions needed to see proposals that would be put to the Council meeting on 24 September before they went. We will see.

As part of the proceedings in the Commission, we needed to give undertakings that we would lift the ban. The Commission, as a rule, doesn’t assist industrial disputes when a union has a ban on, even if we were just taking on the responsibility of management and helping them out. The ban was dutifully lifted on Monday at lunchtime with a request the councillors be advised it wasn’t the employees that had to bear the risk.

In the Commission the Council was quite clear that they were in the process of developing policy and procedures but in an email sent to staff about the agreed interim process it was said in the first paragraph that the interim process would operate “in the process of adopting a policy” but in the penultimate paragraph, “whilst Council considers the need for a policy”.

Well, what is it? Are they “adopting a policy” or considering whether they need one? Why start prevaricating now? We’ve asked for clarification, more than 24 hours have elapsed and we still don’t have it.

The Council will have a lot of work to do to restore trust with their workforce after this.

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