It has been a bleak few days for the more than 1,000 people who work at the City of Ballarat. The 79 pages of the Ombudsman's report, released in state parliament on Thursday, make grim reading for anyone involved.
If not managed very carefully, its implications could be profound, not just for its staff but for Ballarat as a whole. Love it or hate it - and councils have always been a favourite whipping boy for criticism and complaints, some justified, many not - the organisation lies at the heart of city life. It is not just roads, rates and rubbish, but one of the key players in how the city grows and evolves. In its planning, parks, urban development, tourism - and reacting to a pandemic - council sets a tone.
Already, the waves created by the Ombudsman's findings have been huge. The CEO and a director who was the linchpin of much council business are on leave and most likely will not come back. The recruitment and promotion of two existing directors - unnamed in the report - has allegedly been compromised. Whether they are fatally undermined or not will depend to a large degree on how the new guard views their contribution and the support they receive. If the "heady whiff of favouritism" as described by the Ombudsman existed before, the perception of it will only have intensified since Thursday.
Whatever backing they get, their professional lives will not be easy; nor will it be for the several other officers who featured in Ms Glass's findings. Many work at a senior level and are also unnamed but clearly known within and outside the organisation.
Day to day, the Ombudsman's report will not have much impact on Ballarat ratepayers, most of whom would struggle to name the CEO, let alone any of the executive team. Our bins will still be taken away each week; the last of the leaves will be sucked up; and our parks and shared areas will still look pristine. However, it is the underlying direction of the city that is of greatest concern. The new acting CEO Neville Ivey, recently appointed the lead for the pandemic response, has the unenviable task of fronting an organisation reeling from a body blow as well as facing its most challenging financial circumstances for many years.
MR DEMEO: A CRUCIAL COG
Now four of six members on the executive team are either out of action or likely to feel undermined. In the operations of council, it is also hard to overstate the role of Terry Demeo, the city's director of infrastructure and environment, who is currently on forced leave.
The focus of the report's most damning criticisms, Mr Demeo was also adept at keeping council business ticking over. He is a veteran local government man who moved to the City of Ballarat from a previous post at the City of Greater Geelong in 2014, and has constantly been at the hub of discussion in the council chamber - more than the other executives combined.
In letters shown to The Courier from time to time by disgruntled residents, it was almost invariably Mr Demeo's name at the bottom of council correspondence trying to work things out.
Huge chunks of council business were channelled through him: the new parking plan; sorting out a nightspot abusing their alcohol licence, liaising with developers, pushing heritage projects through; enforcing obscure planning restrictions - and much else besides.
Despite the workload, he is still known as an operator who could get things done - but just how things were done is at the centre of the Ombudsman's most damaging allegations
He has also been the most media friendly of the executive team, happy to give background and updates to projects when others preferred to stay quiet. So much so that at one point last year some councillors complained about how much he was quoted in the press. He drew back, and, inevitably, less information came through.
"He's the most competent executive there," said one outside observer. "He's a really good man," a former council worker told The Courier - a sentiment that may well chime with many of his current colleagues.
Not that his style brought him universal approval. "He never takes notes," a member of one local interest group complained following numerous meetings with Mr Demeo. He was also known for frequently being late and being stretched rather thinly - "hellishly overworked," as one member of the community who deals regularly with council officers concluded.
Despite the workload, he is still known as an operator who could get things done - but just how things were done is at the centre of the Ombudsman's most damaging allegations.
Breaking down pieces of work to avoid tenders, bringing in old colleagues without due checks and balances; using a council credit card to pick up a chandelier for town hall at the behest of the former mayor. Outside of office life, this might be appealing: the actions of a do-er, a loyal man helping out old friends or doing a favour for a colleague.
However, in the fiercely scrutinised world of local government, the accusation of skating over processes - whether or not it helps to get the job done - and doing personal favours on work time was never going to be a good look, particularly when publicly laid bare in a report tabled before parliament.
Now Mr Demeo is on leave and covering his role - either in the short or long term - will be a key issue for Mr Ivey to grapple with. The Courier put in a request to council on what that approach might be but the City of Ballarat declined to comment for now.
The other focus of the report was the chief executive officer, Justine Linley. She was a more divisive figure than Mr Demeo, but many within the organisation will still be hugely upset by the report. "She is one of the most decent people you will ever meet," one said.
A social progressive - not a trait admired by all council employees - Ms Linley has kept a much lower profile than her predecessor Anthony Schinck, who one observer has commented only had to sneeze to be on the front cover of The Courier.
Instead, Ms Linley has largely remained a background operator, hanging her hat on trying to change a workplace culture she thought suffered from outdated attitudes and sexism, as well as taking a lead in shifting council's approach to Australia Day.
As with all positions that attract that sort of pay packet and profile, there has been the inevitable sniping in the wings. "Missing in action", one council source said following problems with the council's new parking system earlier this year.
"Hardly ever there - she's running the place from cafes in Melbourne and Canberra," another business leader said. (For the record, The Courier checked council travel records for the past 12 months when Ms Linley made just two interstate trips, one of which was to Canberra).
Several councillors also expressed concerns. One privately has said there was a growing sense of frustration with the pace of work going on in council and the progress of big ticket projects, from Her Majesty's Theatre to the redevelopment of the former saleyards. Cr Amy Johnson has already been forthright in her views.
Whatever the perception of her effectiveness and approach to council business, it was a questionable adherence to process that seems to have hurt Ms Linley most - and highlighted at such great length by the Ombudsman.
Through no fault of her own, Ms Linley was ambushed by past procedural failings soon after she began at council in 2016, with councillors potentially facing the sack due to an earlier administrative oversight.
That was soon headed off but more trouble was to follow in varying degrees: a highly publicised court case which culminated in the jailing of a corrupt sports and recreation manager - crimes which it should be noted took place before Ms Linley's arrival; a botched delegation of power that effectively never took place; and issues over whether the former mayor's international travel was properly considered.
Most damaging however, were the Ombudsman's investigation of internal promotions to friends and allies - and the procedures used for doing so. Even admirers had noted the transfer of several former colleagues into town hall.
It may have been "the lower end of the spectrum of bad behaviour", as the Ombudsman said - and Ms Linley expressed "considerable concerns about the basis of those findings and the commentary of the investigator". But with such a public airing those findings are now impossible to ignore.
Kneejerk reaction following the Ombudsman report on social media was predictably awash with cries of corruption - often from people who read only the headline with little understanding of the way councils work. However the Ombudsman made clear the actions alleged were not for self gain.
This week one state government worker with wide experience of councils also told The Courier that Ballarat council was generally "great to deal with", and that they had heard of far fewer concerns surrounding the conduct of its employees than for many other Victorian councils.
You can't get involved in the detail as a councillorJanet Dore, former Ballarat Council CEO
Whether or not the huge amount of resources and time invested by the Ombudsman was fairly directed is now something of a moot point. The deed is done, the report has been published and councillors and officers have to react - and, just as importantly, be seen to react - to its findings. The meeting announced for Monday is just the first step.
And this is where, potentially, the choppiest waters lie. With an economic recovery partly riding on the confidence people have in council, many will be looking for swift reassurance. That at least is the view of Janet Dore, herself a former City of Ballarat CEO, as well as a monitor of the Rural City council of Ararat for a stint in from 2018 to early 2019.
"I think council has to make quick decisions to give the community confidence in the future governance of the council," she said.
The Ombudsman report also raised issues about how to hold CEOs accountable, Ms Dore believes.
"Measuring culture and really getting inside to assess culture is an essential part of being a director on a board, as well as being a councillor on a council," she said.
"But you don't know, because you can't get involved in the detail as a councillor."
She gave the example of the City of Greater Geelong, which brought in an external consultant to look at the organisation's culture - a move she thought would be prudent for existing councillors to follow.
"If they can't satisfy the requirements of the [local government] minister, intervention is possible," she warned. "The council will be tested by this. They will need to be clear and swift in their decision making."
- To read the whole Ombudsman's report, see here
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