Councillors behaving badly

For more than two decades, we’ve dealt with councillors behaving badly at a range of councils and at Parramatta, twice. We’ve had members place bans on councillors who have abused or criticised them in public or attempted to bully them and even had disputes in the IRC protecting the well-being of our members.

 How councillors behave is regulated by the Code of Conduct and the Procedures associated with it, but it all comes down to common sense, respect and being civil.

As simple as that may seem, there are occasions when councillors don’t do that, and when they don’t do that it, it falls to the GM to manage it and fix it. We’re happy to remind the GM of their responsibilities and to act if the GM fails to manage it.

Sutherland Shire Council has 15 councillors - seven Liberals and seven Labor with one independent, now the Mayor. It’s a bit like the Cold War with the two sides facing off but on this occasion it’s the Libs with the behavioural problems. Well, one Lib in particular.

In 2017 that councillor felt obliged to vent to a Manager who was a member of ours about his dissatisfaction - three f***ing, one sh*t and one I’m pissed off. A complaint was made, and within 24 hours the GM at the time had pulled the councillor in, had him recognise what he had done was unacceptable, had a meeting with the councillor and the employee concerned, the councillor apologised, the apology was accepted and hands shaken. No role for HR, fixed within a day. Well handled, Scott. Everyone at Sutherland misses you.

But on 4 June this year, the same councillor felt obliged to again vent to a supervisor under the already abused manager. This time, two f***ings, one sh*t and one pissed off. A new GM, not as focused or assiduous in the protection of staff as the predecessor, let it simmer. We wrote on 27 July, almost 2 months later, and on being ignored by the GM filed a dispute two days later.

The GM, or CEO as Sutherland prefer, wanted it all to be confidential as a Code of Conduct complaint investigation, even though we’d not made a complaint under the Code. This compromised the ability of the IRC to manage the real issue, the Council not prepared to say anything useful when we were involved in proceedings, preferring to speak privately to the Commissioner and finally, an investigation by a conduct reviewer was established.

 At no stage of this process did the CEO Manjeet Grewal tell us what was being investigated, whether there were multiple allegations, if there were what they were, whether they had paraphrased our requests into a code of conduct complaint (where we would have been the complainant, and would have had some rights about the process) or someone else was. Nor would she disclose who was being investigated until pressure from the IRC squeezed out that none of our members were being investigated or at risk.

The investigator spoke to employees and concluded that in a range of potential allegations (none of which we had made) that the councillor’s behaviour was indicative of a breach of 3.1(g) of the Code of Conduct prohibiting “harassment or bullying behaviour” but was insufficiently serious to warrant a further investigation. If our allegations had been formalised into specific complaints for investigation we would have been consulted on how to resolve it. We weren’t. We were told:

The CEO had determined to resolve this matter by way of explanation and informal discussion. This action has now been completed. No further action will be taken. Therefore Mr (name deleted but the supervisor) will not be provided with a written acknowledgement from (councillor’s name). Council has undertaken a process to satisfactorily resolve this issue to ensure that the appropriate standards of behaviour are abided to”. (sic)

That’s easy to say, isn’t it. No apology from the potty-mouthed councillor, and no acknowledgement at all from the councillor that their behaviour had been in anyway unacceptable. This is completely unacceptable, any employee harassed or bullied by a Councillor needs that councillor to have the unacceptable behaviour acknowledged to them and an apology extended. Ordinarily, the Council would be advised of what was going on and kept in the loop on the investigation and any penalties.

How hard is it to apologise, to clear the air and let everyone get on with it? We all try to teach that to our kids as a core value but it’s not a fundamental or valued approach at Sutherland. The CEO might claim it’s “satisfactorily resolved” but no one else has any confidence that it has been.

Clearly the CEO wasn’t going to help, so on 22 October we wrote to all the councillors outlining what had happened in 2017 and 4 June (without the polite asterisks we’ve chosen to use for fear of offending) and asked the councillors to make this commitment:

I agree that employees need to be treated with respect consistent with the Code of Conduct and give my undertaking to not only comply with the Code of Conduct, but in particular, to speak in a civil and professional way with staff and never use a raised voice nor unacceptable language.

We specifically used those expressions to identify what was wrong with the bullying and harassing councillor’s language and tone. The councillors themselves were not aware of the dispute, or the abuse, bullying and harassment leading to it other than by accident or misadventure. The CEO had decided that no one needed to know, there was nothing to see here. And they’re still not aware beyond what we told them in our letter.

Seven of the councillors have responded with a common commitment which avoids the specific behaviour we wanted addressed (it would seem because of an anxiety about litigation) but which nevertheless committed them, the seven ALP Councillors, to this:

I write to assure you and your members that I fully support the principle that all Council employees should be treated in a courteous manner with dignity and respect, not only in compliance with the Code of Conduct, but in order to ensure a safe, professional and non-discriminatory workplace. I regard this as a fundamental obligation for all Councillors when communicating with Council staff.

We have high hopes that the Mayor, an independent but also a Councillor well-known and lauded for his concern for staff and good governance, will join with Labor and we will have a majority of the councillors committing individually to better behaviour. But what about the rest?

Is there a reason why Liberal councillors would be less courteous, less capable of treating staff with dignity and respect and less committed to a safe, professional and non-discriminatory workplace? Why would the solidarity of the political party prevent even the most basic commitment to appropriate behaviour?

And how do employees respond now knowing that the seven Liberals won’t commit to proper behaviour? We will keep you in the loop.

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