2020 was a turbulent year for most. But for workers at the City of Ballarat - and the many companies and individuals that do business with the municipality - there has been much more than the COVID-19 crisis to stir up the waters.
At the start of 2020, there were six people on the council's executive team. Tourism was flying high, and a new mayor, Cr Ben Taylor, was finding his feet. The trickiest issue council appeared to be grappling with, publicly at least, was that old Ballarat hot topic of public parking as a new "Smart Parking" system was introduced across the city.
Fast forward to the end of the year, and things are completely different - with parking, for once, occupying a back seat in the city's agenda. Every member of the old executive team has left town hall for good and an entirely new one is now installed. There is an interim CEO, a new shape to the structure, not to mention a fresh mayor, and a newly elected council setting out on a four-year term. The latter has mostly familiar faces - but with a significant shift in dynamics.
What has been behind such sweeping changes? How are they affecting residents? Will the turmoil eventually work out well for Ballarat? What can the community expect of the new council, and the organisation whose strategic direction they are supposed to shape? What are the early challenges they will face in 2021? It is a year that has led to a lot of questions, many of which have only just begun to be answered.
The Ombudsman's report
If the tumult of the past year can be traced back to a precise moment, it would be around 9.30am on Thursday May 14 when the Victorian Ombudsman filed a document to Parliament. That 79-page report, called Investigation of alleged improper conduct by Executive Officers at Ballarat City Council, created waves that would shape the rest of the year.
Councillors had been aware of its existence since around February, when they first read a document still in draft form - and much lengthier than the final version. They were legally bound to keep the details of the report confidential, and in between then and its release, there were some significant changes and deletions.
In the report's introduction the Ombudsman warned of a "painful lesson" for Ballarat Council. That began almost immediately and is reverberating still.
Within a week, a director, Terry Demeo, had resigned his post, and the council had voted to terminate the contract of the then CEO Justine Linley. The six-three split on that decision spilled out from behind closed doors to become a festering public spat over several weeks.
The councillor group managed to pull together long enough for another moment that would define the rest of the year, unanimously selecting a Buninyong resident and highly experienced public servant Janet Dore as the interim CEO. In some ways, her appointment was a surprise. In the twilight of a long, successful career, Ms Dore herself would not have expected to be in the high profile executive position at the beginning of 2020. But in other ways, Ms Dore may have seemed ideal.
Having remained connected to the civic affairs of the city as the chair of the Committee for Ballarat for three years until 2018, she kept a close eye on the goings-on at town hall. A CEO of the city in the immediate post-amalgamation years in the 1990s, Ms Dore is well versed in navigating the corridors of town hall and the bureaucracy of government. Speaking to The Courier shortly after the Ombudsman report was published - when she had not stated any intention to go for the job - she advised councillors to be "swift and clear in their decision making", as well suggesting an external consultant should be brought in to gauge the culture.
Less than a month later, after canvassing the thoughts of those with a close understanding of council, Ms Dore had taken the opportunity to put her own words into action directly. The initial reaction to her appointment was positive, although her arrival was greeted less warmly by the remaining executive team who may have had an inkling of what was to come. Ms Dore has a reputation for integrity, straight talking and decisiveness. Things were likely to happen.
Response to ombudsman's report
One councillor said privately a short time after her appointment they were concerned she would go too far and too fast, and that they did not want all the executive team to go. That, however, proved to be exactly what happened.
As an interim CEO, with a career path already forged, little to prove - and no intention of staying in the job any longer than necessary - Ms Dore is free of many of the normal constraints a chief executive faces. By the end of August, a restructure of the organisation was put in place, and all the remaining directors had walked.
This year's annual report hints at the cost of that exercise, warning of "significant" extra executive remuneration costs in next year's report. The Courier understands outgoing directors received a redundancy payment equivalent to around 12 months' salary - which would put the cost of their departure at more than $1million. With Ms Linley taking away six months' pay as well as entitlements, and the cost of recruitment and legal advice, the changes triggered by the Ombudsman have been an expensive exercise.
Short term pain, long-term gain?
The question is, of course, whether the changes make sense in the long run. The disruption has been considerable. A recent quarterly financial report - which outlines how the council has been spending and receiving money from July, just after Ms Dore's arrival, until September - suggests that many projects stalled or slowed in those months. COVID-19 restrictions would of course played a major part - but an organisation in the grip of sweeping changes would surely also be a factor. One community organiser describes the council as "probably working around half speed."
Part of the key for the new-look council's long-term success will lie in the incoming executive team Ms Dore has helped choose - and whether momentum can be picked up by the new incumbents. There remains some scepticism about the breadth of strategic experience in the team, particularly among the planning team, from executive level down.
The departure of Lisa Kendal, a highly respected strategic planner this spring, has not helped. In an interview in July, Ms Dore pinpointed the weaknesses of the organisations as being "too many plans, not enough delivery". It remains to be seen whether there will be enough fire-power, resourcing and leadership to push some long-awaited strategies and projects through.
The Miners Rest Township Plan, Bakery Hill regeneration, the old Latrobe Street saleyards, Living Corridors - and of course managing the infrastructure pressure in growth areas- are just a few of the projects and issues that will need careful attention.
Culturally too, many will want change. The review that Ms Dore advised councillors to set in motion has happened. Susan Halliday, who carried out a similar review for the City of Greater Geelong, was brought in to assess the way the temperature of the workplace.
More than 70 staff and members of the community have been interviewed. At the final meeting of the previous council in September, councillors were told of some "appalling" conduct, including bullying, sexual harassment, assault and improper procurement. While Ms Dore said the behaviour was very concerning, she also said it was "not rife".
The individuals and incidents described to Ms Halliday will not be made public in the report - but her recommendations, which are expected early in the new year, will be. Every announcement of a new executive appointment has highlighted that they will be expected to help put the recommendations from that review into place.
For many in the community, the recurring cultural theme is as simple as just being heard. One said: "Some [officers] are great, and they get right back to you. Others will just never pick up the phone."
Beyond the Ombudsman's report, there has also been a new council elected this year - albeit in slightly strange circumstances, with COVID severely limiting the campaigning possibilities. All nine councillors stood for re-election. Seven were returned - many more than in Warrnambool, where the entire council group was voted out - but a bigger change than the City of Greater Geelong, where there was just one new councillor elected. Out went Jim Rinaldi and Grant Tillett, in came Tracey Hargreaves and Peter Eddy.
The council group will have a number of big decisions in 2021, including the shaping of a new council plan as template for their four-year term.
But perhaps the most fundamental of all will be the selection of a new permanent chief executive. It is a strange, balancing act of a job: on the one hand the role requires someone who can be a leader, a mentor, a motivator, a mediator, as well as someone who guides councillors and reinforces clear boundaries at the same time as being their sole employee.
That distinction is worth stressing as it is often misunderstood. Councillors are not considered a normal employee of the organisation - their role is often compared to that of a company board, responsible for the strategic direction of the organisation but legally not supposed to be involved in the day-to-day detail. The strategy they define is supposed to be put in place by the CEO, who works just for them.
Will Council get this recruitment decision right? It may depend both on luck and judgement. Will the talent pool be wide enough? If not, will they be prepared to wait? Many agree that Ms Linley had not been right for the role. Even members of the team close to her say she handled councillor dynamics poorly, even while liking her as a person. Several of the councillors that made the decision to hire Ms Linley are still in the current council.
Some members of the community would like the criteria they use to hire the chief executive and judge their performance to be more transparent so the public can track progress.
John Barnes, an outspoken council watcher who has worked as both council officer and councillor, suggested at the final meeting in 2020 that key performance indicators should be seen by the public. The suggestion had a distinctly lukewarm reception from the council.
Whoever lands that tough role will have some big calls. Will they want to shape their own executive team, which would make something of a mockery of the process the city has just been through? Will they be completely focused on the job ahead, or will one eye be on keeping one of the highest paid and influential jobs in the city? How will they manage the council group?
The nine councillors making the recruitment decision seem, at this stage at least, to be a more stable group than the previous group were in their final months. They would not be the first council to split publicly and fractiously in the run-up to an election. However, it looked for a short time that could spill over into the new council.
Cr Samantha McIntosh in particular, made clear at the election office the day results were announced how unhappy she had been at her treatment in the run-up to the vote, both in the media and by some of her fellow councillors.
It followed scrutiny of two projects closely associated with her during her three years as mayor in the previous council: the fernery and the Gatekeepers Cottage, both of which were the subject of an auditor's report, which Ms Dore referred to the local government inspectorate.
Those tensions look to have been quietened for now. Cr Daniel Moloney was voted in by the new councillor group as mayor, replacing Cr Taylor, whose work in a difficult year attracted some favourable comments from unlikely quarters.
"He grew into the role, he's grown up," one Labor supporter told me. "I feel like he listens much more than he used to."
But Cr Moloney is viewed as a conciliator, which may be an important steadying influence in the year ahead. Many also feel that new arrival Peter Eddy, an independent councillor with an impressive track record in sports administration, will bring a measure of calm gravitas to the group - as well as some well honed advocacy experience.
He has already made clear he does not appreciate political game-playing. In the vote for mayor, which councillors take between themselves, Mr Eddy stuck to the principle that the decision had been made in private and should remain that way.
He told The Courier he had not even informed his wife who had voted for - an admirable stance, even if there is a strong transparency argument that residents should know how councillors selected the city's main spokesperson. Cr Eddy's subsequent decision to support the cancellation of fireworks was a further indication he will be prepared to make difficult calls.
There will be many more decisions taken by this council group in the next year, some of which will be key to the future shape of the city. However they go, residents will hope the turbulence of 2020 will be left far behind.
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 Ben Taylor 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
July 23: Changes to procurement
July 28: Another director goes
August 2: 'More than half way there'
August 11: Last director resigns
August 27:CEO recruitment begins
September 2: New appointments
September 10: New director of infrastructure and environment
September 11:Final director roles filled
September 17:Cultural review
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