On the 30th January 2020, the Governor of New South Wales on the recommendation of the Minister for Local Government, Shelley Hancock, sacked the entire Balranald Shire Council and appointed an administrator because it was found that the Council was not acting responsibly.
The sacking was not because of the issues one could expect a local government to be dismissed for such as corruption, financial mismanagement or maladministration. In this case, the Balranald Shire Council was dismissed because it threatened and undermined its employees, including the General Manager.
An investigation which was commenced in January 2019 into numerous complaints made against the Councillors but, in particular, against the Mayor found that the Council as a whole failed to act as a responsible employer with respect to the interaction between Councillors and staff. As a result, the Council failed to provide a “safe, consultative working environment for the General Manager and other staff”.
The General Manager made a number of complaints about being undermined and threatened by the Councillors and in particular the Mayor. The Department subsequently found that the Mayor was the primary cause of the unsafe working environment. Staff turnover was significant with many confirming that the abuse at work was worse than anything outside the organisation.
Fundamentally the investigation found that the Mayor, although the Councillors also flirted with operational matters, could not resist becoming heavily involved in the operational arm of the business, giving directions to staff and threatening others with dismissal and other disciplinary action. In addition, the Council was in serious financial distress due to a lack of oversight by the Councillors and mismanagement of Council resources and assets. In addition to that, there was a significant risk of work cover claims that did and possibly still could result from this behaviour and the financial impost that comes with that.
While it was open to the Minister to dismiss the Mayor only, the Minister decided to dismiss the whole Council because the investigation found that while the Mayors’ conduct set the culture, the other Councillors did not take any reasonable action to curtail this behaviour and either joined in or sat on the sidelines.
In recent times, Queensland has also seen whole Councils dismissed with administrators appointed although generally, the dismissals came about because of allegations of systemic corruption and mismanagement not from failure to follow acceptable request guidelines, interference in operational matters and harassment and bullying of staff.
This recent decision in NSW makes it very clear that bullying and harassment, which has long been unacceptable behaviour in the workplace, is very clearly not acceptable at any level in local government and at least one Minister was prepared to take action. Each and every Councillor has a role to play to make sure that the employees of the Council have a safe working environment.
Playing it safe
With the Queensland local government elections coming up in March, aspiring Councillors would do well to really understand the separation of powers in local government in Queensland and elsewhere for that matter and that providing a safe working environment for Council employees is the responsibility of the Councillors, right up there with good governance and sound financial management practices.
If NSW is anything to go by, there could be significant consequences for Councils in Queensland that forget that fundamental concept.
If you require any information on the separation of powers and obligations of employers in the workplace, please do not hesitate to contact our local government team at Preston Law.