The mayoral office was showing a few subtle but telltale signs of the COVID era. In pandemic times, Zoom calls and Microsoft Teams council meetings have become the modus operandi. Offices, including the Ballarat mayor's it seems, are suffering as a result.
There were no pictures on the wall at the elected heart of the town hall machine, and the few pot plants in view also showed the need for a little tender love and care.
One of the few indications of the presence of the new mayor, Cr Daniel Moloney, who was voted in by fellow councillors in November, was a new stand-up desk in the corner.
A decor refresh may have been on hold and the plants forlorn, but restrictions had at least eased enough to allow in-person visits last week. The new incumbent was there getting his feet under the desks - both the new OH&S friendly stand-up version and the more traditional varnished wooden one.
On arriving to talk about the city's recovery plans, The Courier found Cr Moloney talking to the man on whose shoulders much of the council's role in that process will rest: Evan King.
Confirmed as the new, permanent CEO earlier this month, Mr King will shortly transfer across from the chief executive post at neighbouring Hepburn Shire.
After pleasantries and a brief discussion on modern business greeting etiquette (we don't shake hands), Mr King exited discreetly. He is not due to start in his new role until February 15, but both he and Cr Moloney are clearly keen to get things moving.
COVID has unfortunately not helped the building of the relationships.. necessary to make things more efficientMayor Cr Daniel Moloney
Emerging from COVID isolation will be part of the process, Cr Moloney believes.
"COVID has unfortunately not helped the building of the relationships.. necessary to make things more efficient," he said.
"We've got a councillor group and an executive group that for various COVID reasons haven't been able to have all that many face-to-face meetings.
"That is starting to change now, which is good. There's limits to what you can actually achieve online."
And Cr Moloney is effusive in his belief that Mr King will play a fundamental role in helping the council achieve what it needs to.
"I really love Evan's style. I know he will be able to help us set the priorities," he said. "Evan is the type of person who has a lot of government experience, but he also has a good business background - [including] in social services like the Salvation Army.
"It's almost the trifecta - he's operated [in local government], in the private world and he knows what our businesses are going to need, but he also brings a social conscience to it too.
"I think that under his leadership we will have an [executive] team that not only has the right technical skills but can get the balance right."
One of their early tasks will be addressing the findings of the cultural review carried out by Susan Halliday. Cr Moloney told The Courier that he has not read the report yet, but was aware of some of its themes.
It is just one of the upshots of the Ombudsman's report published last May, which ultimately proved the catalyst for the departure of the entire leadership team - and the recruitment of the interim CEO Janet Dore.
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During the final council meeting of the previous councillor group before the October elections, Ms Dore had cited several initial findings, including sexual harassment, alleged improper procurement and bullying.
Putting into place its recommendations will be an important early task, for the council, the new chief executive - and his team of directors, who were recruited last year by Ms Dore.
Being aware of the effect such upheaval can have on staff just trying to do their jobs was important, Cr Moloney said - particularly when coupled with the unique challenges of a global pandemic.
"For me, one of the things about 2021 is acknowledging that 2020 was a tough year for our staff but also trying to put in place... a more comfortable, welcoming environment that allows them to excel in their jobs."
The Halliday report would be part of that process, he said. "Clearly it will lead to some recommendations that we will need to implement."
However, he said he hoped those actions would be decisive and allow the organisation to move swiftly.
"We can't be inward looking for too long," he said. "We need to make some changes but we also need to get on and deliver a huge year. There is so much to do."
Does he feel the new executive team recruited by Ms Dore is well placed to deliver, The Courier asked. (The choice of CEO is up to elected councillors, the only role they recruit themselves. The rest of the organisation's staff and operations is up to the chief executive).
"I've got a lot of faith in Janet and I know Janet has gone through a really good recruitment process to hire the executive team," Cr Moloney said.
"I've met with [them] and I can see the incredible skills they bring. The challenge is they've got big action lists - as a reasonably new council group, we need to be reasonably clear on what the priorities are."
The nine elected councillors are currently working on a first draft of the council plan, the document designed to shape their term and the early stages of a subsequent council. It will go out for public consultation before its budget and exact content is finalised later this year.
"I think once we have got to that stage and are clear about the deliverables, the executive team are the right people to work on that, which is great," the new mayor said.
Among the priority projects would be deciding the shape of some big city precincts - including the area around Mars Stadium, where the Ballarat showgrounds are due to be freed up when the site moves to Mount Rowan, and the old LaTrobe street saleyards. Planning for the new northern growth area would also be key, he said.
"Seeing those precincts have some very clear strategies for the rest of 2021 is important for the rest of this council term."
He also cited rejuvenating the city's events as a big priority. A budget of $2.5 million is set aside for projects to breathe life back into that scene, which the city's many hospitality operators will hope can attract visitors back.
While highlighting $2.1million worth of contracts for road building in the council's recovery document, he was frank in his assessment of the city's project management - a record he said had been "lumpy" in the past. The Courier checked the most quarterly reports for the cities of Greater Bendigo and Geelong, as well as Ballarat. All of them reported underspending due to COVID - but the City of Ballarat was significantly more, more than nine million dollars shy of its predicted budget spend.
One of the first things that would be done under Mr King's leadership would be an assessment of project team resources, Cr Moloney said, to help the city deliver on time and in a more structured way.
"We need to give our staff the right support - my view is we need to have additional people personally," he said.
By planning out projects more clearly, he said there should be more local capacity to carry out jobs - and a good pipeline of work for contractors.
"If you did everything at once, the problem is you run out of local suppliers."
What about the projects that have got away for now? Stage two of the Western Link Road and the All-Waste Interchange are two projects notably absent from recent lists of successful funding applications. The latter missed out this week, despite the council committing $5million to its development more than two years ago in August 2018.
I think any decent relationship can handle a bit of criticism - I don't see myself as being here to completely agree with everything the state government does. My job is to be as apolitical as possible, and parochially support BallaratThe mayor Cr Daniel Moloney
"We have been looking to the state guidance around the circular economy and how that is supposed to function. The process has taken a lot longer than we expected," Cr Moloney said.
"There's some work from us to be clearer with state government on what we want of it, how we scale the operations, then equally I think we will be looking to the state government to do some better partnering - this is one area where I think the relationship has been a bit weak.
"Other areas have benefited from state government investments - frankly Ballarat should as well."
He said he was surprised by the failure of funding bids for stage two of the link road.
"I am not quite sure why because it is really obvious our growth is out to the west and we're going to need those connections in that area.
"We need to sit down with the state government to figure out why."
On the theme of dealing with different tiers of government, Cr Moloney said that while he was politically aligned and worked well with the local members - like them, he belongs to the Labor Party - his first loyalty was to Ballarat.
"I think any decent relationship can handle a bit of criticism - I don't see myself as being here to completely agree with everything the state government does. My job is to be as apolitical as possible, and parochially support Ballarat."
Transport and education investment - including new train stations and schools - would be part of his advocacy, he said.
Links with the federal government, however, needed to be worked on he said.
"There isn't as much of a relationship with the federal government and I think Ballarat has missed out as a result."
"We're seen as being a safe seat, not worth investing in - and I think that's fundamentally wrong. It's a tier of government we need to do more work with."
"Ballarat now probably needs to position a city deal type of arrangement, particularly in light of COVID"s impact on the tourism sector."
And with that it is time to depart the mayoral office, neglected pot plants and all, and leave its relatively new occupant to it. There is clearly work to be done.
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