ICAC finds City of Playford on the right track, still at risk of corruption, misconduct or maladministration

By Stephen Easton

Wednesday December 11, 2019

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When a corruption watchdog turns its penetrating gaze on a local council, it doesn’t usually find commendable examples of good practice, but it is heartening to see it wasn’t all bad news when South Australia’s anti-corruption commission evaluated policy and procedure at the City of Playford.

Deputy Independent Commissioner Against Corruption Michael Riches found weaknesses in record-keeping, and gaps between policy and practice that leave the council “susceptible to corruption, misconduct or maladministration” but he reports its administrators should also be commended for their manifold efforts to improve and maintain integrity, and their support for the ICAC evaluation.

“I am pleased that I have been able to deliver a relatively short evaluation report,” Riches told the state’s parliamentarians. “That is because many of the practices that I observed did not raise in my mind significant unmanaged integrity risks.

“In some cases where gaps or weaknesses were identified, through regular dialogue with council executive during the course of the evaluation I was pleased to see active steps taken to address those matters. In that way the process of the evaluation has been effective before any report has been delivered.”

Deputy South Australian ICAC Michael Riches.

The ICAC received a lot of complaints, as well as some supportive comments, about the City of Playford’s former chief executive Mal Hemmerling, who was sacked in late 2018. At the time Deputy Mayor Marilyn Baker alleged the council had identified “safety concerns associated with repeated sexual harassment of a number of female employees, bullying, and mismanagement” but Hemmerling fired back, threatening to sue for defamation.

Riches acknowledges a lot of controversy surrounding the council over the past five years but makes it clear his evaluation did not seek to pick through these “historical events” or pass judgement on the performance of the elected council. “That is properly a matter for those members of the public who are entitled to vote at council elections,” he observes.

Riches says he focused on “issues that are not unique to local government, but are indicative of issues observed across public administration” rather than adjudicate various accusations and counter-accusations, and as such, explicitly flags this report as one that is intended to be useful to other public sector organisations.

“A number of policies which I consider to be of significant importance to maintaining good governance are in desperate need of review, such as the council’s records management policy which has not been reviewed in 13 years and is largely obsolete,” the deputy commissioner said.

“In light of such an outdated policy it was no surprise to find that the manner in which many important records are managed within the City of Playford is poor.

“Indeed, the general approach to preparing, approving, disseminating and reviewing policies, together with ensuring adherence to those policies, fell short of my expectations.”

Riches made 21 recommendations to improve governance in the report, all of which were accepted by the council.

The top line recommendation is to put in place “an agreed set of organisational values which underpin the day to day activities and conduct of staff” — something commonly seen in larger government agencies but not so often in smaller entities like local government bodies.

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