by Peter Cormick
A questionable justification
The General Manager’s renewed employment contract, for a term of 12 months, has effectively extended her previous contract by 3 months, moving the end date from 30 June 2022 to 30 September 2022. Dr Dale has, for the time being, sought just 3 months more in the job and, not by accident, has thereby left her employment options open, with the real possibility of a further 5 years as GM. Had she not arranged this extension, her contract would have come to a natural end on 30 June 2022, without any opportunity for her to apply for a renewal. However, although it is a vastly more difficult path to take, a fresh application is always available.
Along with many others in the community I was disbelieving when I first heard of Dr Dale’s application for a contract renewal. With a new, reformist, progressive Council just around the corner and the caretaker period approaching, I thought “Surely not!”. After all, not only are central aspects of the policy platforms of the new candidates at complete odds with the secrecy and unaccountability culture overseen by Dr Dale during her time as GM, by 30 June 2022 she will have been in the job for about 9 years. Enough is enough. I had in fact expected Dr Dale to respond to the writing on the wall by organising a quiet, sensible withdrawal.
As things now stand, she will be in a position to apply to the new Council for a renewal of her current contract, for a period of up to 5 years, provided her application is submitted to Council (the Governing Body) by the end of March 2022, being the required (no less than) 6 months before the new contract is due to expire. The timing has been well executed. At that point, the new councillors will be finding their way, having had the experience of no more than a few meetings, ready to be blinded by bewildering policies, guidelines, practices, processes, and procedures and being unsure about what must be and need not be complied with and what is confidential and what is simply said to be confidential. Those who have not done their homework will need to rely entirely on Dr Dale for guidance – and nurturing.
On 28 September, Dr Dale could have applied for a 5-year renewal, rather than the modest 1 year which has provided the 3-month extension. But thankfully, good sense prevailed. Had the 5 years been sought, the altruistic reason provided for the 1-year application, of doing it for the sake of the new Council - would have disappeared. And, of course, such a move, so close to an election, would have brought a storm of public protest, within and beyond our borders.
The Mayoral Report of 28 September, which recommended the 3-month extension, attempts to justify it on the ground that it “would ensure a seamless onboarding process and enable the new Council to establish a clear vision and direction for their term as Councillors.” It has not been explained and it is certainly not clear just how this extra 3 months presence of Dr Dale would in any way be necessary, or even desirable, for a so-called “seamless onboarding process”. When the GM is normally absent, on leave for whatever reason, the place doesn’t fall apart. One of the Directors steps in, seamlessly. Each of the Directors has experience in acting as GM. Each one of them, and one in particular, with decades of experience in Council, would be every bit as capable of assisting the new council in meeting Council’s Integrated Planning and Reporting obligations under the Local Government Act 1993 (LGA). It may be that the new Council will advertise for a new GM at the first opportunity and that one of the Directors is successful. Dr Dale’s 3-month extension would then be much more than unnecessary; it would be a significant, delaying hinderance to an otherwise seamless transition.
As it is now, any aspirations that any of the Directors might have had, have been unnecessarily frustrated, if not thwarted. And, of course, there will also be very able and talented, aspiring GMs out there, just waiting for the chance to take the reins at the ESC. It is very concerning that an incumbent GM, who, according to the particular performance review procedures in place, can simply remain in the job indefinitely. This ‘locked-in’ practice, which prevents the fielding and hiring of the best talent available, clearly works against the best interests of the community.
In ostensibly seeking to help the new Council find its way for just 3 months beyond 30 June 2022, Dr Dale could have adopted the section 351 option, so cogently presented by Jim Bright at the 28 September meeting. Section 351 of the LGA would have enabled Dr Dale to apply to the new Council to be temporarily appointed to the position of GM, prior to the previous termination date of 30 June 2022 having been reached, for a period of up to 12 months. But taking that route would have removed the option of being able to apply to the new Council for a renewal of the contract, for a period of up to 5 years.
So, given that the “seamless onboarding” assistance by the GM could have been more easily and better achieved via the s351 route, but that it was not taken, and that any of the Directors can and do step easily into the role of GM, one can reasonably assume that Dr Dale’s motivation in seeking and obtaining the new contract was not to “ensure a seamless onboarding process” but, rather, to provide her with the opportunity of renewing her contract, yet again, and the possibility of being at the helm for about 14 years.
The process to be undertaken to achieve a contract renewal is spelt out in both the Office of Local Government’s Standard Contract of Employment for General Managers of Local Councils in New South Wales (the Standard Contract) and, more elaborately, in its Guidelines for the Appointment & Oversight of General Managers(the Guidelines). Both documents have been referred to in the Mayoral Report of 28 September, with selected excerpts being provided, including in the minutes of the meeting. The excerpts provided in the Mayoral Report include a reference to section 4 of Part F of the Guidelines in which we are advised that (emphases added):
The process of deciding whether or not to offer a general manager a new contract should be that:
· a performance review is conducted
· findings and recommendations are reported to a closed council meeting in the absence of the general manager
The minutes make no reference to either the conduct of a performance review or that the findings of such a review or the recommendations made upon those findings, were reported to the closed meeting. Either these requirements were not met and therefore could not be included in the minutes, or they were met and the minutes are incomplete. Either way, an explanation is due.
At part E of the Guidelines the issue of Performance Management is dealt with and includes the requirement that:
The performance of the general manager must be reviewed at least annually against the agreed performance criteria for the position. Council may also choose to undertake more frequent interim reviews of the general manager’s performance.
At section 3 of part E, under the heading of Establishing the performance agreement, the Guidelines advise that:
The performance agreement is the most important component of successful performance management. The performance agreement should include clearly defined and measurable performance indicators against which the general manager’s performance can be measured.
The performance agreement should contain but not be limited to key indicators that measure how well the general manager has met the council’s expectations with respect to …
Then, at section 4, the Guidelines deal with the Performance Review Process itself.
Clearly, a GM’s performance against the relevant Key Performance Indicators and, particularly against the requirements of the LGA, is of critical importance in relation to the functioning of a council. Yet, we the community, are kept completely in the dark on this. We are not told what the KPIs are; just that they appear in a confidential Schedule B of the contract. KPIs are in no way personal information. They can apply to GM A, B or C. That they are not shared with the community is yet another indictment on this obsessively secretive Council.
And Dr Dale’s performance in her job is also kept secret from those to whom she is responsible - the community. The councillors are simply (meant to be) representatives, intermediaries. It is the community to whom the GM is ultimately answerable. There can be nothing of a personal nature about one’s performance against KPIs. Performance is an objective measure – a score. We are not even advised that a review has taken place, if indeed it has at any time. On this, as with so much about Council, we are kept in the dark.
And who is responsible for this secrecy? No, not Dr Dale, though she certainly drives the secrecy culture. It is the Governing Body. The councillors. They are responsible for all that is wrong with Council. But because the majority are incapable of doing any independent research and thinking independently, or thinking at all, or having any passion for reform and progress, the staff, with Dr Dale at the helm, simply fill in the void, applying their own values and agenda. The staff run the show, because if they didn’t there would be no show.
The writing is on the wall, and it is writ large.
All the signs are that the new Council will take control of Council’s affairs and direct rather than follow, with a progressive and open agenda. The current lot of councillors, with the notable exceptions of Councillors McGinlay and Mayne, have been a dead loss. They have simply ticked off on the staff’s agenda and unquestioningly fallen into line at every step. And we’ve had 5 whole years of this! They most certainly have not represented the community. They have represented the staff.
The new candidates who have thus far shared their policy platforms are united in being determined to open Council up to the people - to remove the secrecy culture, to truly consult and to be fully accountable.
If as we expect, and certainly hope, our new Council is every bit as reformative as promised, and steadfast in charting and staying on course, there will be an obvious need for a ‘good chat’ between the reformists and Dr Dale. The Guidelines have this to say about the importance of the position of a GM and the GM’s relationship with councillors (emphasis added):
The position of general manager is pivotal in a council. It is the interface between the governing body comprised of elected councillors, which sets the strategy and monitors the performance of the council, and the administrative body of the council, headed by the general manager, which implements the decisions of the governing body. The relationship between the general manager and the councillors is of utmost importance for good governance and a well functioning council.
A harmonious relationship between the Governing Body and a General Manager is of crucial importance to the proper and efficient functioning of any council.
If things play out as can reasonably be expected, there will be a clash of cultures, between the progressives and Dr Dale. KPIs can be expected to be reviewed and re-written, requiring all staff to adhere to new policies designed to open Council up and to make it fully accountable. Non-compliance with reasonable KPIs is obviously problematic for a non-complying employee.
Dr Dale is clearly a very astute bureaucrat and, thus far, expert at reading the tea leaves, and guiding those who need guiding, and so one can only wonder what is at play. There are candidates who can be expected to be successful who will simply not compromise; and so there will be no middle ground.
Councillors McGinlay and Mayne, who, at the closed meeting on 28 September, voted not to approve Dr Dale’s application for the new contract, being the only dissenters and the only progressives on Council, were ethically obliged to so vote. They would have been under considerable pressure to fall into line: “What’s in an extra 3 months …?” But principles prevailed. They have both consistently been at odds with much of ‘council’s agenda’ as driven by staff. Those councillors who voted to approve the application, seem to truly believe that all is right at Council. It most certainly is not.
Dr Dale is clearly determined to stay in the job, even given the high probability that the governance agenda (at least) of the incoming Council will be strongly at odds with the governance regime she has overseen since 2013. We can only wait and see how things play out. Clarification
Since my commentary above was posted to The Beagle, it has been brought to my attention that my critical comments on "the staff" can easily be taken to refer to all staff. That is absolutely not the case. My reference to "the staff" is a reference to the senior/executive staff, those who form the policies and compose the Council meeting agendas. I have nothing but praise for the hard work carried out by the hundreds of conscientious workers at Council, both indoors and outdoors. They keep the shire running. My critical comments on the staff concern matters of culture and values as they impact upon integrity, transparency and accountability. These are not matters that less senior and junior staff have any influence over. Peter Cormick
Dr Catherine Dale, Eurobodalla Council General Manager