Anyone can be a Mayor, and look what they can do

Don’t be alarmed that this is a story about the vulnerability of general managers because reckless and unfair decision-making affects everyone - and we have members who are general managers as well. And even more members who would like to be.

Eight weeks after a new Council was elected at Camden, the incoming Mayor, Councillor Lara Symkowiak use the backing of her four other Liberal councillors to terminate the contract of the respected general manager Greg Wright. Clause 10.3.5 of the general managers and senior staff Standard Contract allows termination without explanation by giving 38 weeks written notice or 38 weeks pay.

There is something fundamentally unacceptable about anyone being sacked without explanation and invariably without the usual proper justification of unacceptable behaviour or performance. This is the reason why depa historically and vigourously fought against the introduction of term contracts in the industry in the 1980s, contested their introduction into the Local Government Act in 1993 and continues to agitate against the fundamental unfairness of good employees being unfairly dismissed.

The 1993 Act removed access for senior staff to tribunals under the NSW Industrial Relations Act and the Local Government (State) Award and other industrial instruments - thereby putting general managers and senior staff into high risk employment, unlike senior staff of the State or Federal Governments where employees are not as vulnerable because they don’t have the same immediate relationship with politicians.

Bizarrely, general managers are the only employee directly employed by an elected Council. That makes then very vulnerable - not just as a result of changes in council elections (which is bad enough) but working with councillors and mayors who can be prima donnas, overly precious, ignorant of process and operations, unaware of concepts of fairness and equity, self-seeking or just plain ambitious and unpleasant.  

Those of us who understand Local Government (sometimes unlike the DLG and the NSW Government) understand that people move from Council to Council to take these positions, moving their family, partners and kids from social networks and education into a new community and hoping for the best. The best can unfortunately be a Council unsympathetic to the social costs of wrenching a family from home and the familiar and unconcerned by the implications of unreasonable treatment on an employee and their family.

Being so vulnerable (everyone else but other senior staff have the protection of permanent employment ) it’s a brave general manager prepared to start a mediation process (allowable but not compulsory under the Standard Contract) to try to make a relationship with a dysfunctional Mayor or Council work.

One of the working parties and reviews looking at local government at the moment is the working party looking at the Standard Contract. At the most recent meeting on 26 November we were able to continue our historic objections to this vulnerable form of employment and the potential of unfair dismissal and we were supported by the Local Government Engineers Association and the USU.

But not, somewhat surprisingly, by the Local Government Managers Association (LGMA). The LGMA’s predecessor was the IMM and that organisation did support the general opposition to term contracts in the lead up to the 1993 Act. We know that the LGMA possesses no expertise in industrial relations or human resources management but it was still a surprise to see a professional body representing general managers and others quite content to allow that vulnerable employment to continue.

President of the LGMA Paul Bennett (GM at Tamworth) was quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald in an article about the Camden decision as saying “I can’t recall a situation where a general manager has actually been sacked based on performance, I guess you could assume from that it just comes down to the quality of relationships that exist within the individual councils.”

Sorry Paul, that sort of complacent acceptance of the right of unreasonable councillors to sack good performing general managers is just not good enough.

The unions have argued that the general manager (and other senior staff) should be employed permanently and that there should be checks and balances to allow continued access to the Industrial Relations Commission to ensure fair treatment. depa has made similar suggestions in our meeting with the Local Government Acts Taskforce.