How does an institution restore public faith in its processes after years of deception and misgovernance?
That’s the task facing the administrators, new CEO and executive of the Central Goldfields Shire after the revelations of the past year, which led to the former CEO facing criminal charges and councillors dismissed.
Noel Harvey is the chief administrator appointed by the state government to oversee change at the beleaguered council following the parliamentary removal of elected councillors last year. He has an extensive career in local government, both as a councillor, commissioner, member of various boards and as part of the councilor conduct panels.
He was awarded an OAM in 2004 for service to local government. Noel Harvey spoke to The Courier about the changes the administrators are making to revive transparency, and the challenges constituents face.
Is it feasible to contemplate having a (council) CEO in the same role for 20 years these days?
Personally I would say it's very unwise, and I think we've seen the results of can happen. I think there's one or two other councils around the state which still have very long-term CEOs. I don't think it’s likely to happen again.
My personal view is that you usually appoint a CEO for perhaps a five-year term. Some councils go for three, but to my mind five is a good start. I think it's a really healthy thing to have a turnover at the highest level. I think for rural councils that particular it's important to appoint a CEO who is on their way up the ladder and actually wants to make a name for themselves, wants to achieve stuff as they go through. That means you’re unlikely to keep account a CEO in a role for a long period of time.
It’s important for councils to be transparent; if they are not then ratepayers can’t be confident they’re adequately represented. What have you done at CGSC to restore transparency? (CGSC has replaced council meeting question time with other initiatives such as listening posts and making administrators available for appointments.)
Look, transparency in decision-making in local government has never been more important.
The question was, ‘is this (question time) really serving any particular purpose?’ We had a look at the questions that were being asked, we looked at who was asking them, how many people were coming; and the resources council were using under the Act to record the questions.
Ninety per cent of the questions could have been answered if someone picked up a phone. Half a dozen people were asking the same questions over and over; or their were questions being used to drive personal agendas, which I refused to take. But I’m aware that we’re opening ourselves to criticism, and we need to address that.
We’re upgrading the council’s website and we’re making it more interactive; people are accessing our Facebook page. All three administrators are here every Tuesday 90 per cent of the time, so we’ve put aside some time specifically for questions that people want to ask us one on one. Our listening posts are very popular; we've been doing those quarterly since we arrived.
And there’s a community voice panel, which we haven’t tried yet; people can register to be directly contacted by us.
What we're trying to do here is to reach the widest group of people we possibly can.
One of the directions from the (local government) minister when we took on this role was sort out all the internal problems, get the organisation back on its feet and deal with the governance; but the other critical thing we have to do over the two or three years we're here is to rebuild the confidence of the community in local government. That's why we're doing what we’re trying to do.
All these things cost money, and rates are not a bottomless pit, of course.
Organisations stagnate, and I think that’s what’s happened here. We need to look very closely at where we spend our money.
We're going to be doing a service review within the organisation because I think where it spends money is a little out of balance and I think we need to recalibrate that. I look around and our road network is in stunning condition compared with many of our neighbouring municipalities. So we need to look at where we perhaps are over-servicing and where we are under-servicing.
This community has missed out on significant state government support in terms of grants and funding initiatives because it’s been very inward-looking.
We’re working on one, a very significant investment of money from the federal government to address some of the disadvantage. I’ve signed off on the first step of an application which could deliver several million dollars into this community start to address those problems – not someone coming to do it for us, this is a whole range of groups sitting around the table, community organisations working together with significant funds from the federal government to address some very specific problems.
I think the more we engage with our community, the more opportunities there are for that to happen. The more we can try and develop our staff internally to start to look out rather looking in, I think we start to see those things happen.
I'm confident that by the time we leave here in two years' time that the organisation is going to be very robust, addressing some of those challenges that we've identified. It'll take decades because there are decades of inaction. You can’t turn that around in two years, but I'm confident that we will be back on track.
You look at the measures of disadvantage and Maryborough is on the bottom. But there are some amazing things in this community that I’ve never seen anywhere else, a lot of activity, a lot of positive things.
When local government is bad, it’s bad for the community. When it’s good, the community tends to thrive.
I think the lessons we are learning here can be applied to the bigger councils, Ballarat and Bendigo, certainly.