Don’t tell us, we don’t want to know

Fairfield Council's GM and three Executive Directors
Fairfield Council's GM and three Executive Directors

Fairfield City Council has now adopted policy and procedures to complement the Code of Conduct and regulate contact between councillors and staff. Pressed by the three unions as a result of the fiasco suspending two innocent employees for 12 weeks, the Council reversed the decision they had taken when the Division of Local Government recommended that they develop policy and procedures in common with more than 80% of councils in their Better Councils Program.

No wonder no one takes the DLG seriously, when they can make a recommendation to introduce a policy and the Council can just refuse. Anyway, they didn’t refuse our request.

This process requires that both the GM (known as City Manager at Fairfield) and the council sign off on the policy and procedures.

Ordinarily, Fairfield is very good at consulting with the Consultative Committee whenever a policy is developed that has an effect on staff. But not on this occasion. The Council just refused point blank.

Pressed by the Industrial Relations Commission as a result of the second dispute we filed with this Council this year, the Council undertook to provide a copy of a proposed policy and procedures adopted by a councillor workshop and to be ratified by the council the following week. They did this, but delayed the provision of the document in a way that had both the USU and the LGEA requesting more time - a request the Council denied.

Fortuitously for us, someone had thoughtfully slipped a copy of the document adopted at the Councillor Workshop under our door one morning a couple of days earlier than the Council copy arrived. Very kind and Alan, if it was you, thanks. You should have dropped in, I could have taken you for a coffee.

So we had time to prepare a response which complained that all the proposed policy did was to enshrine in policy form what was their current process - no protection for staff, no regulation of contact, a list of 80 or so operational staff who could be contacted in any way by councillors about anything, and no requirement that either the GM, or the executive director in the relevant area, be advised of the request, nor its purpose, nor whether any pressure was exerted on the employee, or anything else.

Unfortunately the Division of Local Government says it doesn’t have a “best practice” approach to these policies and that if the policy satisfies the Council, then that will do. That’s pretty hopeless, when you think of it. The DLG, after all, does have a role in regulating standards and behaviour in local government.

Clearly cryogenically frozen, it’s time the DLG thawed out and did something about this.

And again unfortunately, the IRC took the view that if our dispute was about the absence of policy, and Council had adopted one, no matter how dreadful it was, then that was really the end of the dispute. We think that’s impractical and unhelpful, but we’ll be back to try again.

During the course of the Troubles at Fairfield, our delegate discovered that there had been a practice in the past of making a written request any time a councillor wanted contact with staff where the purpose of that contact had to be identified. Councillors were supplied with a pad full of these forms a decade or more ago under a different general manager with more of an interest in keeping an eye on councillor behaviour than the current incumbent.

So, we wrote to the City Manager (i.e. the general manager) and proposed that this form be reviewed and renewed and councillors required to complete it on any occasion they wanted to contact staff.

No more of what’s been happening for the last decade or so - no more phone call to the contact person and a direction to get to the councillors’ room or the mayor’s office immediately, with no specifics of the purpose, and to be met by the councillor/mayor with an aggrieved polluter, an illegal builder or someone else who wanted to do the wrong thing, or had already done the wrong thing, and who was pressing the councillor or the mayor to lean on the staff to do something more lenient. How can that be anything other than a great idea and good governance?

We suggested that the Council could do it themselves, we could do it jointly or, if they really didn’t want to manage this contact, its frequency and its purpose, then we will keep our own record and they had the opportunity to be involved in that, or not.

But City Manager Alan Young, said no.

So we will prepare our own form which our members on the contact list can complete after each councillor request. There will then be proper records of who asked for what, and why they did it. Funnily enough at Fairfield, the Councillors only ever want a more lenient treatment and never want more rigid or tougher regulation - unless it’s for a political enemy.

The form will record it all. Did they want leniency? Did they want a fine or a crime forgiven? Did they want to do things which would breach the restrictions on what councillors can request of staff in the Code of Conduct?

Our suspicion is that documenting this information will discourage many requests. There has already been a significant reduction in councillor requests for contact over the time of the Troubles as councillors understand that they are being scrutinised for their behaviour, if not by the top two levels of management of the Council, who don’t want to see or hear any evil, but by us.

And once we’ve got 50 of these completed forms, we can return to the IRC or the DLG if they’ve regained consciousness, or, if our suspicions are right about why councillors do this, just send them straight to the ICAC.

After all, at some stage, the ICAC has to run out of Obeids and will need something else to do.

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