Breaking down: WCC staggers under the weight of old ways

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Carol Altmann – The Terrier

It’s 12 months since the Warrnambool City Council started a new chapter under a new CEO, but still it staggers under the weight of the old regime that is pulling the place apart.

As I write, I have just heard from solid sources that two high-level staff have taken leave amid allegations of bullying.

Other senior staff  have taken sick leave or unexplained leave, including the head of governance who has not been seen for months.

Over the past six months, staff have continued to resign, paying tribute to their workmates, but saying they can no longer deal with the workplace culture and a lack of leadership.

One senior staffer who left put it this way in a letter to colleagues: “I urge you to stick to your values, call out things that are not in line with the organisation’s values and most importantly, be kind to each other.”

The elected council, meanwhile, remains riven with deep rivalries that pit the Cr Gaston/Neoh faction against the Cr Hulin/Cassidy/sometimes Herbert faction, in a bitter struggle which is circular and exhausting.

To be frank, despite the polite smiles in the council chamber, most of the time they want to rip each other’s heads off.

Whistleblowers have been isolated and the CEO’s supposed “open-door” policy remains blocked by gatekeepers, so staff  are reluctant or unable to step through.

Even the CEO is kept in the dark, having allegedly not been briefed about the looming credit card scandal until June last year, which is when the scandal broke publicly.

In that environment, faith is broken and people learn to just shut up and get on with it.

Or they resign.

I say all this being fully aware – and grateful – that the council is full of decent, solid, hard-working, loyal people who give their absolute best to Warrnambool as true servants of the public and they make up the vast majority of council staff.

But the fact is the new CEO, Peter Schneider, inherited a shite sandwich which he has been unable to turn around.

Just three months before Mr Schneider started, the results of an independent staff survey leaked into the public domain and it was not a pretty picture.

It found that since 2014, the council had gone backward on every key measure, including leadership, people, customer focus, and strategy and planning.

Most telling was that while 71 per cent of all staff said they felt proud to work at the council, only 51 per cent said they looked forward to coming to work each day.

In one department, only 39 per cent enjoyed coming to work each day.

That is not a sign of a happy place, but a place where good people keep hanging in there, hoping things will get better.

They haven’t – I have seen resignation letters and spoken to some of those who have left – and they won’t until three things happen:

a full, open and independent assessment of the workplace culture with a commitment to act on the results;

an end to the bunker mentality by being open and honest with the public;

a changing of the guard at the next council elections in October.

 

Without these, I fear that the WCC will continue to lumber along like a bus on broken wheels, wondering why it’s losing all of its passengers.

11 thoughts on “Breaking down: WCC staggers under the weight of old ways”

  1. What a smile on the CEO’s face ,now where have I seen that look before?
    Anyhow has everyone done the CBD parking survey ? ,the questions and multiple choice answers seem to be worded in an attempt to sway the outcome. Most likely the results of this survey wont see the light of day . (Edited)
    http://www.yoursaywarrnambool.com.au/

    1. I agree with your assessment of parking survey. I just completed. No mentioned of CBD residents of which I am. The survey is flawed and biased.

  2. A “changing of the guard” is absolutely essential but I wonder if it is enough?
    I think under the previous CEO, it is pretty obvious that he and a few members of council formed a team that was mutually beneficial to those particular council members and to that CEO and other senior members of staff.
    So if bullying is continuing, where is it now coming from? If it is from senior council staff then a new council will have to come in with a real kick arse attitude and be prepared to remove those people who are doing this bullying.
    We can only hope.

  3. I agree with Jim Morissey’s assessment. There is an entrenched adversarial culture which has developed over years. This engenders the negative environment and because it is habitual, it is very difficult to change. There does need to be a new Council, one is not afraid to be open and transparent and answer resident’s questions without creating the barrier of having to go through the FOI process every time. After all, Council is NOT the Community leader Council is the Community servant, specifically put there to represent and work for the people. Council officers are employees, not privileged executives.
    I am often conscious of having to avoid kowtowing when approaching these people when there should be an acknowledgement that they are there to help me.

    1. Spot on Richard. All council employees are public servants. They are in a privileged position insofar as their role is as servants to the community. The tail is wagging the dog. This is the formers CEO’s legacy.

  4. Contemporary governance has the board (aka council) responsible for corporate culture. Think banking royal commission. The ceo is accountable for implementing the cultural values. If the ceo is finding resistance in doing so they have no choice but to remove said blockages. In the situation at hand it’s very apparent the senior leadership is dysfunctional and must be moved on (regardless of their effectiveness of not). Changes must be made. And it’s also evident this ceo is lacking the courage to make the required tough decisions. What’s even more concerning are the councillors (read all) who are oblivious to the to wreck they have allowed to happen by not holding to account current and previous administrations.

  5. I guess this is a postscript to my previous entry. When one has an opinion about Council and offers criticism it should always be framed in a respectful and courteous way. I am conscious of the concept that many good, well-meaning people have entered Council hoping to make changes and improve the situation for all residents. The Australian mentality is such that as soon as they do get voted in, they become targets for anger, derision and ignorant criticism. It’s as if they were never real people and suddenly become ‘a…holes’

    1. I think Richard when people enter Council or are voted in and become part of the problem instead of the solution then perhaps we have the right to feel cheated and get a little angry.
      The next council election will be a test for both the Warrnambool City Council and its residents ,we will see if warrnambool voters are really as stupid as at least one sitting councillor thinks they are.

  6. We are at risk of judging Peter Schneider too harshly; he has indeed been handed a shit sandwich. He has inherited a workplace where there exists a range of unhealthy relationships, most of which he would have had little or no awareness of when he started.
    He has inherited a number of senior staff who have been acting incompetently, in ways he had no way of knowing about and, as you report, a least one serious matter was allegedly kept from him by these same people. At the same time, he does not seem to be receiving the support from council that he both needs and deserves. This is perhaps due to, or made worse by, unhealthy relationships between Councillors and council staff and within council. Any doubt about the existence of these relationships, and their impropriety, was made clear by your reporting of the Myrtle Bar dining out night where a number of senior officers were joined by a Councillor for a dinner paid for on a council corporate credit card.
    I think that, to resolve the issues we see at council, two things need to happen. First, and most obvious, we must elect a new council; one that is not affected by unhealthy relationships within or outside council. The second thing that needs to happen is less obvious but much more important, in my view. The position of Governance Officer has to be resolved and this might be more difficult to achieve. First, they must get rid of the one they have. I don’t wish to be unreasonable here but the current incumbent has been damaged and possibly compromised. We need a new broom.
    The new governance officer should be empowered to report only to the CEO and should have the right to go into any part of the council, see any document and ask any question that person sees as necessary to ensure that council is acting ethically and with integrity. This governance officer should routinely and independently report to the Audit and Risk Committee of the Council (say, monthly) but also provide annual independent reports directly to the full council (in camera where necessary). This governance officer should be encouraged to build an independent professional relationship with the Victorian Ombudsman (VO) and be able to draw on their expertise and advice whenever they need and be able to report directly to the VO in cases where this becomes necessary.
    With these powers, and the right candidate, the CEO will get the room to move that he needs to get rid of those who are bringing the council into disrepute and increasing its cost of doing business. He will be able to build a healthy workplace that attracts and retains the right people and help rebuild public confidence in the council and its staff.
    But first it is up to us to do something about the Councillors. (edited)

    1. Jim. I agree with your comments. I will add there is sometime between now and a council election. A lot of damage can occur in that time. The council need to get out of the way at let the ceo do his job. Starting with a clean sweep of senior management. If that upsets some Councillors then clearly they have over stepped professional boundaries and lost sight of their role and why they are there.

  7. The “changing of the guard” that you suggest needs to occur is the Gaston/Neoh/Owen clique that have institutionalised themselves as the key group that insists on having power and control. If you’re not sure about this see Sue Cassidy’s broadside after the mayor meeting debacle.

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