Town hall was not a happy place two months ago. An Ombudsman's investigation - a second highly critical official report within the space of a year - had just been published. As a result, the council's CEO had just been sacked and a director had resigned. Councillors were talking nervously about the possibility of state government intervention.
So what prompted someone in semi-retirement, as Janet Dore describes herself, to nominate for the daunting task of steadying the ship, addressing an Ombudsman's criticisms - and restoring confidence?
Ms Dore, speaking to The Courier this week, is known for extreme self belief, which her answer reflects along with a trademark directness.
"It's simple," she said. "I did think I was the best person for the job."
A veteran public servant - Ms Dore served as CEO for Ballarat Council in the 1990s, then headed up Newcastle Council, followed by the Transport Accident Commission - she spoke on her appointment of having a "mountain to climb" to restore trust.
I do think some of the people who have left have been very capable
She said her role was to take the council to basecamp and let a new CEO - to be appointed by the new council elected this year - to take the organisation to the peak.
Now seven weeks in, she puts progress as "a little bit more than half way" on that journey.
"A substantial amount of governance work has been completed," she said. "The big stuff now will come out of Susan Halliday's [who is undertaking a workplace cultural review] work for a cultural action plan."
New jobs for four director roles - one fewer than before - will be advertised from next Saturday. Shortly after that Ms Dore wants expressions of interest from recruitment firms for the task of appointing a new CEO - to ensure a new one is appointed in good time after the council elections in October.
There would be no job losses beyond the executive team, she said.
"I committed to no job losses except for the executive positions that I am going to advertise, and that's where people are making their decisions."
Only one of the five directors in place at the beginning of May - Neville Ivey - is still at the organisation. Four have already resigned since the Ombudsman's report, with directors Angelique Lush and Cameron Cahill finishing yesterday - the upshot of Ms Dore's decision to re-advertise the executive jobs.
"I do think some of the people who have left have been very capable," Ms Dore said.
"It's just an unfortunate experience that is all too common in local government. My experience in Ararat as a monitor gave me a bit of impetus to get involved in this position. "
"I see so much that could be improved in local government - and that's general. It's not just Ballarat.
So is town hall - metaphorically speaking given the working from home edict that currently applies - a happier place now?
She dismissed suggestions that some staff might be feeling exposed by the upheaval.
"The staff have responded extremely well to my plan. They have welcomed the fact that I have been decisive and addressed all the points that needed to be addressed - and by the way, so has the Ombudsman."
She also said there was a misconception there was no talent within the organisation.
"I am hoping there will be a mixture of internal and external candidates who will be making my job very difficult on the selection panel to choose the next directors."
But while she describes the City of Ballarat as "largely a very good organisation", Ms Dore does not shy away from some pointed observations of its culture.
"I think people are risk averse and have tended not to be able to get on with their jobs the way that they should. There's been a mix of priorities, too much on the agenda."
"That's partly because the council wants to do a lot of stuff and have been very ambitious - and that's a good thing - but I think the organisation has not been able to implement strategies. It's got lots of strategies - too many plans, not enough delivery, that's how I would characterise it."
Such willingness to speak her mind inevitably creates waves. Last month, that happened very publicly in an episode now dubbed as "maskgate".
She appeared with the mayor Cr Ben Taylor in Botanical Gardens, as part of a personal drive to encourage people in the city to wear masks. It created some media backlash, with state minister Jaala Pulford saying the suggestion contravened official advice.
Does Ms Dore feel vindicated now masks will be compulsory? "I don't think we'd better comment on it," she said. "I won't even go there."
The suggestions here from Ballarat Council are not consistent with the current health orders and advice of the @VictorianCHO.— Jaala Pulford MP (@JaalaPulford) July 12, 2020
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On her first day, Ms Dore also spoke about the effect councillors have on the culture. She said she had spoken to every councillor individually. "Those conversations are obviously held in private. What I have done is reinforce the code of conduct and I have also pointed out... where maybe things could be framed a little differently."
The Courier asked if any councillors had become too involved in the past in council's operations (under local government law councillors are supposed to guide overall strategy rather than be involved in the detail).
Ms Dore replied: "Probably, but I have seen no direct evidence in the current council other than a few comments in meetings where I have said 'well, I believe that's operational'. It's not a major problem for me."
She said she encouraged councillors to recognise the good work of staff where possible. "It's not that we're looking for pats on the back - but a fair acknowledgement instead of criticism is always welcome. I don't mind criticism if it's constructive."
"The staff can only take so much, when in the media there is comment - and especially social media - there's uninformed comment. I think the councillors understand that."
The Courier understands planning staff in particular have felt undermined in recent articles and public discussions.
Ms Dore said she would "die in a ditch" to protect staff from abuse.
I think the organisation has not been able to implement strategies. It has got lots of strategies - too many plans, not enough delivery, that is how I would characterise it.
In terms of transparency, Ms Dore says the council's default position should be "that things [are] made public because they are of public interest."
"Clearly commercial details can't be. I am working with the officers to make sure our contract reports are much clearer... [and to give] quite a bit more detail than is given now."
"Most of the things we do are pretty open compared to a lot of public sector authorities.
"That's where people underestimate the challenges within a local government organisation, especially in a regional community.
"You can meet people in the supermarket, who will bail you up on their issues. There's some good things about that. [It has] happened on many occasions."
As for the wider challenges presented by COVID-19, one of the key projects for Ms Dore would be the All Waste Interchange and Materials Recovery Facility.
"This is a substantial regional project which will further the policy of the state government and the City of Ballarat in terms of sustainability and the circular economy."
Council has already committed $5million and has progressed to the next stage in a state application for funding to match that.
Ms Dore also highlighted the Bakery Hill Urban Renewal project and planned works on the Sebastopol Senior Citizens as potential sources for hundreds of local jobs.
As for her own work over the next few months, she said: "I just want to reassure the community that I am trying to do the best I can with what is largely a very good organisation to deliver their services."
"Some people might think it is going too fast. I am doing exactly what I said I would do. My six-month plan is progressing."
I just want to reassure the community that I am trying to do the best I can with what is largely a very good organisation to deliver their services.Janet Dore, CEO City of Ballarat
Could she be tempted to stay on? "No, no, no, no," she laughs. "I haven't been in my [wood] workshop since I started and I am a bit frustrated about that.
"I make trays and chopping boards. I love working with wood. It's better than sitting at a desk."
OMBUDSMAN COVERAGE: TIMELINE
May 14 The report is tabled
- City of Ballarat ombudsman report: 'jobs for mates' allegations regarding Ballarat Council executives
- Ombudsman report into Ballarat council: councillors express disappointment
- Ombudsman report into City of Ballarat: Councillors told to scrutinise CEO behaviour
- City of Ballarat ombudsman report: The intriguing finer details
- Ombudsman's report into Ballarat Council: What next for council officers?
- ANALYSIS: Troubled waters at town hall
May 18, 2020: Resignation and sacking
May 19: Mayor talks about Justine Linley's sacking
May 21: Price fixing links of acting CEO confirmed
May 24: Fresh doubts published over recruitment processes/ Fall out continues over decision to terminate Justine Linley's CEO contract
May 28: Push for new interim CEO
June 10: New CEO announced
June 12: First day of new interim CEO, Janet Dore
June 18: Directors jobs to be re-advertised
June 29: Director of business services resigns
July 7: Director Cameron Cahill resigns
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