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Why sack Geelong council: staff tormented, axe bully unpunished

Geelong Mayor Darryn Lyons

Geelong mayor Darryn Lyons threatened to sue the CEO and council of the City of Greater Geelong if bullying allegations against him were published, according to a scathing commission of inquiry report into the council’s governance, administration and culture.

The council is “substantially dysfunctional”, governance and performance is “well below standard” and there has been a “failure to provide good government to the city”, argues the report tabled on Tuesday.

Former Victorian secretary Yehudi Blacher will be installed as interim administrator before ongoing administrators can be appointed to perform the roles and functions of a council until an election is held in October 2020.

The city is “riven by conflict between councillors” as well as “between councillors and the mayor”, the review found, recommending the council be dismissed. The Victorian government is attempting to push through the parliament a bill dissolving the council as a matter of urgency.

The commission of inquiry, headed by former Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Terry Moran, was appointed in response to findings of the workplace culture review conducted last year by former federal sex discrimination commissioner Susan Halliday.

Axe-wielding incident tops offences

The report claims there is a deep-seated culture of bullying not only within the council itself, but also within council administration.

In one extraordinary example, police had to be called after one councillor known for “going off his cruet” became aggressive at a community meeting.

One of the worst incidents of bullying given in evidence involved a pregnant employee who asked for the chemicals shed at her workplace to be ventilated. The report details her terrifying experience:

“In response she was told by the manager on site, ‘Ventilation, I will give you fucking ventilation’. The manager then took to the walls of the shed with an axe. This occurred in front of a number of witnesses. No action was taken.”

While the commission was wide-ranging in its criticism, the mohawked Lyons (pictured) came in for particular rebuke. The report claims he has little or no support from councillors and the antipathy towards him crosses party and independent members.

The report outlines several examples of alleged bullying by the mayor. In relation to the observed activities of outdoor staff, Lyons is alleged to have said, “Are they fucking dumb?” Another time he allegedly told a staff member they “should be picking up dog shit”.

The inquiry heard another time the mayor abused employees of a business and council staff, as well as threatening the business proprietor that he would close the place down. The mayor said he had no memory of the latter example.

His behaviour has led to one staff member in his office resigning and another being physically relocated.

The deep malaise within the council “directly affects its capacities to plan and deliver high-quality services to the community of Greater Geelong,” the report states. “Staff have learnt to keep their heads down and not to challenge existing ways of doing business. This has adversely affected the quality of advice from staff and undermined continuous improvement by the organisation.”

Conflict, dysfunction, silos

The commission of inquiry found widespread inappropriate behaviour and an incapacity to run a council effectively among councillors in particular.

A “prominent and well-informed” local leader told the commission that “Geelong’s disadvantages are self-inflicted. [The council] have a corrosive capacity to destroy any idea.” The commission found:

  • the council is riven with conflict, unable to provide a long term vision for the city and lacking the leadership required to manage Geelong’s major economic challenges.
  • the council’s leadership is dysfunctional, and includes a significant number of councillors contravening their code of conduct.
  • the council operates in silos — both at councillor level and at senior management level — looking after sectional interests rather than the municipality as a whole.
  • there is a deep-seated culture of bullying within the council and its administration, which has contributed to a lack of good governance and failure to provide a safe workplace for staff.

Good governance has also broken down, it says.

There is “poor understanding by the mayor and councillors of their legislated roles and responsibilities” and some have tried to direct or influence administrative staff in the discharge of their duties, the report argues.

“A number of councillors appear not to accept in practice that they must keep out of operational issues that are the responsibility of the administration. A number of them are plainly driven to interfere because of their ward interests rather than the interests of the whole community.”

The current councillor code of conduct has had no discernible impact on councillor behaviour. The report explains:

“The mayor does not call councillors to account. One councillor described life in the chamber as ‘a day in, day out dogfight’. Another described it as ‘tense, almost paranoid’.”

Directly elected deputy mayor on the cards

When elections return to the council in 2020, voters may have the chance to elect not just a mayor, but a deputy mayor too.

The Andrews government has accepted all 12 recommendations made by the commission. The bill before parliament also provides for a directly elected deputy mayor and the replacement of single member wards with multiple member wards, as recommended by the commission. The government argues a deputy mayor will strengthen support for the mayor and help share the workload of the mayor’s office.

The report notes many councillors do not support the direct election system for the mayoralty, though most stakeholders do.

Minister for Local Government Natalie Hutchins highlighted the fact that the council was not providing a “safe” place for its employees. The statement read:

“This is about returning good governance to the people of Geelong and a safe working environment for council staff.

“The people of Geelong deserve better. They deserve a council that is equipped to manage the city’s economic challenges, while ensuring it’s not left behind the rest of the state.

“The issues contained in the commission of inquiry’s report are of such a serious nature that the government has no choice but to dismiss Geelong council.

“It’s deeply disturbing that the council has not dealt with the Halliday report — by failing to address the culture of bullying they have continued to put their staff at risk.”

Author Bio

David Donaldson

David Donaldson is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Melbourne. He's previously written for The Guardian and Crikey and holds a masters in international relations.