Mid-Western GM sacks two directors - and one of them was ours

On Wednesday 14 May 2014, officers from the ICAC raided the Council offices and the home of a Mudgee councillor. The SMH reported this followed allegations of conflict of interest involving land subdivisions owned by Councillor Max Walker and the Mayor Des Kennedy.

The community had watched the Council override its own strategic land use plan approved by the Planning Department in 2011 on minimum block sizes in a subdivision where Councillor Kennedy was a part-owner and which dramatically increased the subdivision’s value.

The investigation continued, poorly resourced, until two investigators spent a week in Mudgee in the second week of August interviewing eleven witnesses. This included the two longest serving directors and one of them was the Director of Development.

It was notorious in the organisation that the majority group of councillors surrounding Kennedy and Walker believed that staff in the planning area had been the whistleblowers. The GM had been told by one councillor that they believed the Director was the whistleblower.

Two weeks after the ICAC interviews in Mudgee, GM Brad Cam sacked the Director of Development and the other Director under clause 10.3.5 of the standard contract for senior staff. This is the provision that allows the contract to be terminated with 38 weeks’ notice for reasons other than legitimate reasons for terminating a contract like unacceptable behaviour or poor performance.

It is the provision used regularly after local government elections where an incoming different power block sacks a GM without disclosing the reasons for doing so.

The decision of the GM at Mid-Western can only be seen as reflecting the view of the majority councillors and their ultimatum to him that it’s the other directors or him.

And it’s action which creates a precedent where, for the first time since the introduction of standard contracts, directors have suffered the same political sackings as GMs.

It prostitutes the principles that underpin the public sector generally that employees of a public authority are there solely to provide advice without fear or favour. It’s part of the protections against political decision-making that underpin the Westminster system but at Mid-Western those principles have been abandoned, dramatically, during an unfortunately slow and under-resourced ICAC investigation.

No employees in local government, regardless of their position, should be vulnerable to being sacked for political reasons. The community can have no confidence in the impartiality of the system if those who administer health, building and planning legislation can’t do the job without fear of the repercussions from councillors with pecuniary and other interests in development.

No employee in local government should be sacked during the course of an ICAC investigation into those with the power to sack them.

These are deficiencies in the standard contract, not acknowledged by the OLG in the 2014 Standard Contracts Working Party where the OLG argued that employment in local government at a senior level is identical in all respects to senior level employment by the State - something demonstrably untrue and clearly evident from LGNSW’s unprecedented response trying to correct Councillor behaviour, the harassment of the GM at North Sydney, the suspension and sacking of the GM/Pizza Man at Hurstville, the stress leave of GMs and harassment at many, many other places.

The OLG, typically, has taken lots of notes, the ICAC, 16 months down the track is continuing the investigation and is unable to protect employees interviewed whether they want to be interviewed or not, and our member, a highly regarded planner with the interests of the community at heart, the support and confidence of her staff and with a high reputation for her integrity and capacity amongst her peers and fellow professionals across the state, has been sacked while the regulators observe.

It’s simply not good enough.

Our fearless prediction that this month we may have seen “some ICAC action at last on the appalling things happening at Mid-Western” was wrong, but unlike Nostradamus, we live to fight on and to do something about it.

We have already raised with ICAC staff the importance of there being some protection for local government employees when councillors or more senior employees of the organisation are subject to an ICAC investigation. This will be formalised in the weeks ahead.

But is anyone going to look after senior staff?