Vic ombud warns councils against ‘heady whiff of favouritism’ in latest scathing report

By Shannon Jenkins

May 14, 2020

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Victorian ombud Deborah Glass has urged council workers to think about how their actions can damage their organisation’s reputation, after she found two senior council employees helped their friends and ex-colleagues get jobs.

Tabled in state Parliament on Thursday, Glass’ latest report found Ballarat Council’s chief executive officer and a director had “advanced the careers of personal associates and former colleagues”.

The investigation was triggered by eight whistle-blower complaints regarding the two employees, Glass noted.

“Council staff became genuinely concerned that senior officers were employing their friends, and it is a poor look for the council that such a view should flourish,” she said.

CEO Justine Linley had been accused of helping hire or promote six friends and former colleagues to senior positions at the council. Glass found Linley was involved in employment decisions regarding just two of the staff members, which was “unwise at best, and may have been improper”.

Meanwhile, infrastructure and environment director Terry Demeo was found to have been “improperly involved” in recruiting three former colleagues from Greater Geelong Council to senior roles at Ballarat, the report revealed.

He had changed a position description to better suit one of the ex-colleagues after HR raised concerns about their suitability for the role, and was also involved in splitting purchase orders to avoid a tender process for a council construction project.

Glass found Demeo had used a council credit card to buy “farewell drinks” for the departure of a colleague. He also bought meals and drinks for various stakeholders between 2016 and October 2018, costing roughly $7000.

Glass noted that “while the purchases may evidence poor judgement on Mr Demeo’s part” they did not constitute improper conduct.

Demeo also used the card to buy items for the Ballarat Town Hall — including a chandelier costing nearly $1000 — which Glass said didn’t appear to breach council policy, but were “nonetheless unusual”.

She noted that while not all of the accusations against the two employees were proven to be true, “allegations of nepotism are damaging for many reasons, even if they are not substantiated”.

“They damage the individuals complained about, as well as those who were hired, who for no fault of their own may find the merits of their appointment called into question. They damage the reputation of the organisation, and it is not an overstatement that ultimately they damage public confidence in the integrity of our system of government,” she said.

“The excuses given for such breaches of hiring practices are almost invariably that the person hired was the best person for the job and it was in the interests of the business, usually because things needed to be done quickly. The assertion that those hired were the best people for the job cannot be tested, because process was not followed.

“So one of the director’s former colleagues and friends moved from a full-time job with an annual salary of $93,000, to part-time work for which his company was paid around $400,000 over three years. Another was appointed and promoted in questionable circumstances. The chief executive advanced her friend and doubled her salary. The heady whiff of favouritism tainted reputations, regardless of individual merits.”

Glass recommended that by June, the council consider the findings against Linley, and take what it deems as appropriate action, which it accepted.

Glass also suggested Linley consider whether to take disciplinary or management action in regards to Demeo, to which Linley chose not to comment.

She did, however, note that her core values include being being respectful, accountable and achieving results together.

“I take this opportunity to reiterate that my management and leadership philosophy is and has always been based on the notion of collegiality, collaboration and building the capacity of all people through coaching and mentoring,” she said.

“Empowering people to be their best, to be compassionate, to have care for their colleagues, to be agile and to provide people-centred public service are the manifestations of this. Were this not the case, the City of Ballarat as an organisation would not be in the position it is today where it has been able to quickly adapt and operate with care and compassion providing direct community service and leadership in the midst of rapid change, immense anxiety and uncertainty.”

Glass said other Victorian council employees should take note of her investigation’s findings, as senior leaders “set a culture in which demonstration and acceptance of poor practice can become the norm”.

“Local government is claimed to be a small world where everyone knows each other,” she said.

“All the more reason for them to be mindful of conflicts, actual or perceived, and to manage them appropriately.”

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