IT will be a long year ahead, with the canning of the September local government elections, if we continue to have a council navigating persistently tense relationships and perceived divisions that simmer away while they attempt to captain important decision-making for our community.
Port Macquarie-Hastings Council's general manager Craig Swift-McNair was the target of an unfortunate public lambasting by radio 'shockjock' Ray Hadley on March 13, whereby a lengthy, direct and personal letter he wrote to mayor Peta Pinson raising code of conduct issues, was the subject of a scathing attack.
Parts of the five-page letter, read by Hadley, focused specifically on a radio interview Cr Pinson participated in about the management of Lake Cathie.
READ MORE: Council's lake data is two decades old
Cr Pinson has spoken a number of times in her elected capacity on the Hadley morning show. She says Hadley phoned her to participate in an interview on the lake and water restrictions. She said she provided the producer with the letter.
In the letter, which Cr Pinson says was not a formal complaint, the GM points out that some of her public comments could be perceived as breaching council's Code of Conduct and the responsibilities she holds as an elected representative. Those comments are concerning the management of the lake at Lake Cathie and the other issues including water restrictions.
In her response to the GM's letter, Cr Pinson says she stands by her claims and that council, councillors and the community, have always been aware of her position on the lake, as raised in a mayoral minute in November.
NSW Minister for Water, Property and Housing and Nationals MP for Oxley, Melinda Pavey, even weighed in on the debate via phone during the radio broadcast saying "Peta Pinson was just trying to do what the community expects of her".
"It is a terrible letter for a mayor to get from the general manager," Mrs Pavey said, adding she too would like to speak with the GM about progress on the management of Lake Cathie.
Hadley took it one step further with a verbal swipe claiming the mayor was not liked because she was a "strong, opinionated woman" who was "fighting a boys club" underpinned by "misogyny". He then called for the GM resign and run in the election himself rather than be a "mouthpiece for other people's agendas".
He even went as far as calling the GM a "boofhead".
At the time of this public airing, election campaigning toward the September 2020 polls was already gaining momentum and community division on the issue of the lake had reached boiling point.
NSW Councils are bound by the 2018 Model Code of Conduct and Procedures for the Administration of the Model Code of Conduct provided through the NSW Office of Local Government. It applies to more than 45,000 staff and nearly 1,300 councillors at 128 councils across NSW.
The Code states, among other things as minimum requirements, that council officials conduct themselves in a manner that will not bring the council into disrepute.
It has also set new standards relating to discrimination, harassment and bullying, constituted by behaviour that offends, humiliates or intimidates a person or creates a hostile environment.
The Code also defines what are deemed inappropriate actions including "making personal attacks on council staff or engaging in conduct towards staff that would be contrary to the general conduct provisions ... of this code in public forums including social media".
Failure by a member of staff to comply with council's Code of Conduct may give rise to disciplinary action, it states further, and any information in relation to allegations about a suspected breach is not to be disclosed to the public.
A council spokesperson confirmed the general manager is charged with ensuring compliance with the Code of Conduct. But at the December 2019 council meeting, the complexities of the code came under fire when it was revealed 14 complaints between 2018-2019 had cost ratepayers, who are not made aware of who or what the complaint is about, $51,000 to investigate. Thirteen of those complaints resulted in no action.
Cr Lisa Intemann and Cr Geoff Hawkins requested the general manager make a representation to the Department of Local Government to consider strengthening the enforceability of the code, as well as how to provide more detail about the complaint so councils can analyse issues raised and put in place corrective measures if necessary.
READ MORE: Is our council a "Muppet show"?
In November 2019, the GM raised the ineffectiveness and lack of enforceability of the code with the Minister for Local Government, and again with the Office of Local Government (OLG) in February of this year.
It came off the back of a NSW Supreme Court decision in a case that argued the role councils play in enforcement.
The OLG, in response to the GM on March 9, said while the court decision limits councils' ability to impose lesser penalties such as training or the issue of apologies; councils can still censure, or formally express its disapproval, to councillors who they deemed have breached the code.
The letter sent by the GM to the mayor under this guidance ticks the boxes, given the specific matters he is said to have raised.
Was it justified? The mayor thinks not.
Cr Pinson said she is open to having a discussion about the matters raised in the letter from the GM, but believes their healthy working relationship has been "damaged".
I don't have to agree on every decision. And I'll tell the community if I don't. The community is my boss, that's who I work for.- Mayor Peta Pinson
"The Code of Conduct is not worth the paper it is written on if there is no consequence," Cr Pinson said.
Measures for clarity on the enforceability of the code by the GM and councillors suggest a shared frustration with its worth.
"I told him (the GM) I had done an interview. He did not speak to me about it up until I got that letter and up until that point, we had a good working relationship. We were working in the spirit that a GM and mayor should be working.
"I am incredibly disappointed."
Cr Pinson says she believes their relationship was "sabotaged". By who?
She believes there was influence at play.
"We are dysfunctional as a council. They (councillors) won't work with me, and I can't work with them," she said.
"When we come together as a group we don't have to like each other - let's just get the job done.
"They need to realise the community is watching and judging. We will all be judged at the polls, as we should be.
"I don't have to agree on every decision. And I'll tell the community if I don't. The community is my boss, that's who I work for."
Port News contacted council for comment. A spokesperson said the community can be assured council will continue to do its business and make decisions in the best interests of the community.
Is it likely the friction will subside though? We've got another 12 months before we go to the polls and plenty of decision-making to happen before that.
Let's hope they all pull together and shift from the path of resistance and start focusing on the big issues concerning our community, making sound and sensible decisions based on fact, research and collaboration with each other.
No, they don't have to like each other. I think we all agree some of them don't. But we expect them to work together.
The results will be shown at the polls. Every one of them, including the mayor, now has 12 months to prove why they should be there.
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