Council behaviour ‘hostile and aggressive’

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THE early exit of former council CEO Dennis Hovenden caused issues at council, the municipal monitor says. Picture: Supplied

FRANKSTON councillors have been behaving in a “disrespectful, hostile, and aggressive” way at meetings according to the state government appointed municipal monitor.

Prue Digby was appointed to oversee the council’s conduct and governance for the period covering December 2017 to June 2019. Her final report into the council was made public last week.

She wrote that she had “found that the behaviour of a number of councillors at ordinary meetings was disrespectful, hostile and aggressive and brought disrepute on the councillors and on the council.”

“Sarcasm, point scoring and belittling of another councillor were commonplace behaviours,” she wrote. 

“I observed that there was a lack of trust between councillors and to a lesser extent between a number of councillors and the council management. It followed that the working relationship between councillors was poor and they did not display evidence of an effective working team nor an ability to display good governance principles in terms of behaviour.”

The monitor’s report noted that during her time “a number” of referrals were made to the Local Government Inspectorate regarding alleged breaches of the Local Government Act. She noted that two applications had been made to the Principal Councillor Conduct Registrar regarding allegations of serious misconduct.

Originally due to leave at the end of June, she had her stay extended and provided a second report about the process of appointing a new CEO after the departure of Dennis Hovenden. She said the process had caused the relationship between the outgoing CEO and councillors to become “very strained.”

“A couple of councillors started advocating in mid-February 2019 for a decision to be made on whether to renew the CEO’s contract or advertise the position. The CEO’s contract was to expire in late October 2019. It was clear at a councillors only meeting in March 2019 that the majority of councillors in attendance wanted to proceed to advertise the position,” Ms Digby wrote.

“Council resolved in April 2019 to advertise the CEO position. As a result of the above, the relationship between the CEO and a number of councillors became very strained. The CEO resigned and exited the organisation on 30 June 2019. 

“Since mid-February 2019 I observed a significant deterioration in the behaviour of some councillors in the way in which they engaged with each other and with the CEO in assemblies, committees and day to day interactions. The mayor faced significant challenges in managing the concerning behaviours of some councillors.”

In her report, Ms Digby also noted some areas in which councils were performing well. She listed risk and compliance, structures, systems and policies, direction and leadership, monitoring and review, capability, communication, and community engagement as areas where council was performing adequately or above expectations.

The final report featured six recommendations that Ms Digby suggested that the local government minister write to council about. They included to “continue councillor debriefing sessions following council ordinary meetings to discuss their performance and behaviour, continue their efforts to reduce the number and complexity of notices of motions and alternate motions by engaging in discussions with the CEO and executive and fulsome discussion at councillor assemblies” and to “continue to find mechanisms to increase trust and effective communication between management and councillors.”

Frankston mayor Sandra Mayer said “we are committed to positively addressing the recommendations of Ms Digby’s report, and feel we have already made huge strides towards positive change.”

“We are pleased that the report has finally been made available to the public. We have a strong focus on transparency, and believe our community has the right to read the report in full,” she said.

Ms Digby’s stint at council came at a cost of over $100,000 to ratepayers. 

The full reports can be read at localgovernment.vic.gov.au

First published in the Frankston Times – 23 December 2019

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