Editorial: The Usual Suspects are on notice

The latest council noticeboard says UNREASONABLE CUSTOMER CONDUCT PROCEDURE Council has introduced a procedure to manage unreasonable customer conduct that negatively and unreasonably affects its service to the community. The procedure aims to ensure that staff are confident and supported to manage unreasonable customer conduct. It also specifies that Council will act fairly, consistently, honestly and appropriately when responding to unreasonable customer conduct. Find the procedure at www.esc.nsw.gov.au, under Council policies.

So I went and had a look. And right down the bottom, way down the bottom, at the very bottom of all the policies I found it HERE It turns out that under the Customer Service Policy the staff have added a new Unreasonable Customer Conduct Procedure. The draft Customer Service Policy went before Council on March 28th to be moved that it go out for public submissions.

NOTE that the attachment given to Councillors on the day and put on the agenda for public scrutiny DID NOT have the Unreasonable Customer Conduct Procedure attached and it was only referred to saying it existed and was (new).

The Customer Service Policy was then exhibited without the Unreasonable Customer Conduct Procedure attached for either the Councillors or the public to read from Wednesday 5 April 2017 until Tuesday 2 May 2017. The Customer Service Policy was adopted (including reference to the unattached Unreasonable Customer Conduct Procedure) at the Ordinary Council Meeting 27 June 2017. The NEW Unreasonable Customer Conduct Procedure that formed part of the Customer Service Policy and referred to WAS NOT ATTACHED. By the document it declares that its Approval date is 7th September 2017. Approved by WHO? The Unreasonable Customer Conduct Procedure is just that - a procedure. And as such is an Operational matter and DOES NOT require councillors (or the general public's) approval. So it appears that Council staff can write their own procedures and then approve them as well without answering to Councillors or the ratepayers. The Unreasonable Customer Conduct Procedure is a 20 page document that outlines how Council should deal with "difficult" customers. From time to time, sadly, there are truely difficult customers that staff need to deal with. That is accepted and we wish Council staff well in dealing with them. BUT WHY after three months did this Public Notice appear in today's Council's Noticeboard? From Councils "Unreasonable Customer Conduct Procedure": What is Unreasonable Conduct? The majority of customers act reasonably and responsibly in their interactions with Council, even if they are experiencing distress, frustration or anger about a particular matter. However in a very small number of cases, despite Council’s best efforts to help them, some customers behave in ways that are inappropriate and unacceptable. They may be aggressive and verbally abusive towards Councillors and staff, threaten harm and violence, inundate Council’s offices with unnecessary and excessive phone calls and emails, make inappropriate demands on Council’s time and resources and/ or refuse to accept Council’s decisions and recommendations in relation to their matter. When customers behave in these ways, Council considers their conduct to be ‘unreasonable’. UCC can be divided into five categories of conduct:  Unreasonable persistence  Unreasonable demands  Unreasonable lack of cooperation  Unreasonable arguments  Unreasonable behaviours Council advises in their new procedure that: 2. Compliance: "This procedure is based on the NSW Ombudsman’s 2013 model policy". So let's have a look at that model policy and play spot the difference. From the NSW Ombudsman’s 2013 model 3.1 Unreasonable complainant conduct Most complainants who come to our office act reasonably and responsibly in their interactions with us, even when they are experiencing high levels of distress, frustration and anger about their complaint. However in a very small number of cases some complainants behave in ways that are inappropriate and unacceptable –despite our best efforts to help them. They are aggressive and verbally abusive towards our staff. They threaten harm and violence, bombard our offices with unnecessary and excessive phone calls and emails, make inappropriate demands on our time and our resources and refuse to accept our decisions and recommendations in relation to their complaints. When complainants behave in these ways we consider their conduct to be ‘unreasonable’. When complainants behave in these ways we consider their conduct to be ‘unreasonable’. AH, here is the missing bit....... Unreasonable complainant conduct (‘UCC’) is any behaviour by a current or former complainant which, because of its nature or frequency raises substantial health, safety, resource or equity issues for our organisation, our staff, other service users and complainants or the complainant himself/herself. UCC can be divided into five categories of conduct: •Unreasonable persistence •Unreasonable demands •Unreasonable lack of cooperation •Unreasonable arguments •Unreasonable behaviours In essence that all looks pretty good, it is about safety and staff health ... but what about the missing bit that gives it a health and safety context and what of the resource and equity issues it refers to? You then realise that one of the underlying reasons for the Procedure is for the "management" of those Usual Suspects who inundate Council’s offices with unnecessary and excessive phone calls and emails, make inappropriate demands on Council’s time and resources and/ or refuse to accept Council’s decisions and recommendations in relation to their matter. As Beagle Readers would be aware we have a fine group of very well informed ratepayers who actively follow Eurobodalla Council matters. They are often referred to by Council senior staff and Councilors as the "Usual Suspects". These Usual Suspects might easily be deemed as Unreasonable complainants as they tenaciously seek answers to what they consider to be very important issues. They write clearly, they are succinct in their questions, they provide references of correspondences and reports, they provide links to LGA protocols and regulations and they seek clear and definitive answers which they often publicly share for the sake of transparency. Alas they are most often disappointed by what they receive back in both content or by timeliness. So they write again. And it goes on like a cat and mouse game and with that comes growing discontent by both parties. The writer feels as though Council is evasive or dismissive and Council sees the writer, often well informed and therefore a threat in itself, as being a pain in the arse of their otherwise groundhog day of preferred complacency. All that is needed to stop the pain is for Council, under this new "procedure", to determine that the Usual Suspect is making inappropriate demands on Council’s time and resources and/ or refuse to accept Council’s decisions and recommendations in relation to their matter. From that point on they can close down further communications. Council recently adopted a media policy that suggested in the accompanying report that it refuse to provide Council’s media service to individuals or organisations that do not act in accordance with the Australian Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance Code of Ethics for journalists, and/or the Australian Press Council’s Statements of Principles, Specific Standards, Standards of Practice and Advisory Guidelines saying that Council resources and should be considered within the context of the definition of Council’s media service; suggesting it may not be a good use of council resources to respond to an unnecessary level of querulous (complaining in a rather petulant or whining manner) or vexatious (causing or tending to cause annoyance, frustration, or worry) media queries. The same argument could well be employed in the determining that a Usual Suspect (or any one else who tenaciously seeks answers) is making inappropriate demands on Council’s time and resources We are beginning to see the results of Council's (and most Councillors) unwillingness to communicate and to be open and transparent on several fronts which has resulted in the Usual Suspects taking their concerns and issues (along with their frustrations) to higher authorities that include ICAC, NCAT, the OLG, The Ombudsman and relevant State Ministers..

Who are these Usual Suspects: Here are just a few. Viv Sethi - issue, dumping of sand at Surfside. Tied together with Council's Sea Level Rise Policy Viv has now taken this through the EPA, Crown Lands Department and now to State Ministers. Ian Hitchcock - issue - Sea Level rise, Coastal Inundation - Ian has now taken this to the Coastal Alliance and is looking at the procedures adopted by Eurobodalla Council that are in conflict with procedures and planning policies. Peter Bernard: issue - Has been tenaciously looking at the financial reports and statements that were publicly presented by Council as justification for a Special Rate Variation. The anomalies have been acknowledged by Council however the issue has been taken to a State Ministerial level with a hope that an internal audit might prevail. Damien Rogers: - issue - Has identified several occurances of illegal dumping by Council and continues to pursue the illegal dumping at Dalmeny Industrial area and the possible leaching of toxins at Brou Tip into adjacent waterways. - issue 2 - has continued concerns of Council staff stepping outside of their authority in regards to private property access. The Huntfest Folk: issue - questioning the legal procedure of granting a licence by tender to Huntfest. This has now escalated to a State Government level. Jeff de Jager - issue - the purchase of the Batemans Bay Bowling club site and its compliance with Councils procurement policy and the transparency of financial reporting of the purchase. Paul Bradstreet representing the ERA - Paul had the temerity to advise (with others) the Council's GM that going into a confidential council session in relation to her own salary review and contract renewal was NOT ON. He and others very clearly quoted a whole lot of sections of the Act and were dismissed as being Usual Suspects. Their advice to the deaf-eared councillors was ignored however Paul and the others were in fact correct as revealed when the OLG itself found that Council was actually in breach and maybe their advice should have been noted and acted on. As yet there has been no apology nor has the required actions to publicly advise of the host of retrospectively modified minutes been made. Then we have all the smaller issues. Council's Batemans Bay Bridge submission, that was submitted unseen and not endorsed by Councillors or the community. The rushed Aquatic Centre grant application process and documentation that referenced an unseen and non-endorsed Aquatic Strategy, Council's botched proposal to purchase Albert Ryan Park, the off-leash fenced dog park, the Batemans Bay Marina development and the removal of the towns emergency helipad, the subterfuge to reclassify an Area of Cultural significance in Tuross Head while blatantly ignoring the wishes of the community and the public hearing processes that are required by legislation. All of these issues have seen a mountain of incoming correspondence with little if any acceptable response and certainly a scant regard for either timeliness nor openness and transparency. It has not gone unnoticed by The Usual Suspects that Council’s newly approved procedure states : Mutual responsibilities Customers are responsible for: being honest in all communications with the Council yet under Staff are responsible for: the reciprocation of honesty is not noted. In closing... from the Ombudsman’s 2013 Guidelines Organisations must acknowledge that sometimes they and their staff get it wrong and can, in fact, trigger or exacerbate (Unreasonable Customer Conduct ) UCC. Mistakes can be made, complaints/cases can be mishandled, processes and procedures can be overly complex or unresponsive to the needs of certain complainants, and delays may occur. In these circumstances, and in any circumstance where an organisation contributes to a complainant’s unreasonable conduct, they should immediately rectify the problem – including providing the complainant with an apology. Organisations also need to take steps to ensure that their UCC policies are applied cautiously and sparingly. The Ombudsman’s approach and UCC policies, in general, should never be seen as a quick solution for dealing with complainants who are angry or frustrated or who are viewed as being annoying or a nuisance.They are intended to be applied in cases where UCC is in fact an issue –that is in cases where a complainant’s conduct raises the types of safety, resource and equity issues identified in the Managing Unreasonable Complainant Conduct Practice Manual (2nd edition)and supporting documents.For most organisations these cases are likely to be very few in number.

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