A state government review has vindicated Tweed Shire Council’s decision to sack its former general manager last month, finally putting the issue, which sparked a political backlash from conservative and business groups, to rest.
Mayor Barry Longland welcomed the Division of Local Government review confirming that Council’s termination of David Keenan’s contract after only 10 months in the job was reasonable.
Cr Longland said Mr Keenan had acted as a ‘lone ranger’ whose style of management differed to that of the elected council.
He said the former GM had acted ‘outside the knowledge or authority of the elected body’ in a way ‘that suggested that the mayor and councillors were a mere distraction to his agenda’.
The mayor took a swipe at those who led the charge to try to have Council sacked instead over its decision to sack Mr Keenan.
Cr Longland said it was ‘a matter of some regret that leaders of the business community’ had tried to ‘challenge that focus through unhelpful personal and disparaging remarks’ about the community’s elected representatives.
He also took aim at the highly orchestrated and at times vicious campaign by supporters of the three National Party aligned minority councillors who voted against the GM sacking (Crs Warren Polglase, Phil Youngblutt and Carolyn Byrne), which culminated in a protest rally earlier this month.
‘The political games they play, while grabbing headlines in the local press, do not advance the longer term interests of the shire,’ Cr Longland said.
‘Notwithstanding, please be assured that your council will put to one side those negative and destructive voices to adhere to our plan and ensure, to the maximum extent possible, that our council can support the efforts of our businesses and entrepreneurs.’
One of those who spearheaded the campaign is the most senior National Party figure in the federal electorate of Richmond, Rory Curtis, who is also senior campaign manager for the party’s candidate for the seat, Matthew Fraser.
Mr Curtis, the president of the Tweed Heads Chamber of Commerce of which Cr Polglase is his vice-president, drew flak from Richmond’s Labor MP Justine Elliot last week for politicising the chamber and masking his political role.
Mrs Elliot called on the businessman to quit his post as chamber president for ‘compromising its once non-partisan reputation.’
She accused him of overtly backing her political opponent in the upcoming federal election and attacked him for ‘intentionally trying to hide his National Party loyalties and membership’ from the media and the public.
But Mr Curtis said his involvement in the campaign and endorsement of Mr Fraser were made as a businessman and as ‘an individual’, and the chamber board supported his staying on as president.
Officers from the Division of Local Government spoke to most councillors, senior staff, the former GM and community members as part of their review.
Cr Longland said they found no evidence to suggest that the decision was made on improper or illegitimate grounds and was satisfied the decision was open to the council to make in the circumstances.
The acting head of the division, Steve Orr, wrote in his letter to the mayor that a good working relationship between a council and its general manager was ‘fundamental to the effective performance of the organisation’.
Mr Orr said ‘where that relationship breaks down or a council loses confidence in its general manager, this can lead to serious dysfunction and will invariably impact on the capacity of the council to meet the needs of its community.
‘In such circumstances, it is reasonably open to a council to terminate the general manager’s employment.’
Mr Orr urged ‘all councillors to put their differences aside in relation to this matter and to make a conscious effort to rebuild healthy and constructive working relationships with each other and with council staff’.
At this Thursday’s council meeting, the mayor will table the division’s findings and advice, which is available now on Council’s website.
Cr Longland said it was now ‘time to move on’ and start the process of recruiting a new general manager ‘and get on with the job of looking after the interests of residents and ratepayers of the Tweed.
‘Out of respect, I have no intention of publicly airing the failings of the former general manager. I am making a conscious decision to play the ball, not the man, unlike my detractors.
‘The councillors are working hard to devise and implement a strategy to support the business community in the Tweed. It is committed to that objective and will continue to promote growth and opportunity for all. That objective is as urgent now as it has ever been.’
He said there was no single issue that led to Mr Keenan’s termination ‘but a series of incidents over many months that involved his delivery of strategic direction outside the knowledge or authority of the elected body’.
Loss of confidence
‘As I have said publicly before, his contract was terminated due to a culmination of issues and actions that resulted in a loss of confidence by the majority of councillors in his ability to lead the organisation and deliver the community’s vision as identified in our Community Strategic Plan.
‘This elected body decided to terminate his contract, as we were legally able to do under a clause that both parties agreed to.
‘It should be noted that this is a standard clause and contract prescribed by the Division of Local Government and one which the former general manager was advocating as best practice for all other management positions.
‘The termination did not come about because of issues with Leda Developments, or for any political reason.
‘I acknowledge the former general manager has impressive economic development credentials, but leading the largest employer in the Tweed is about far more than that.
‘A general manager of one of the largest regional councils in NSW has the responsibility of leading and delivering a broad range of services and programs. It is about working collaboratively, to achieve a vision set out by the community.
‘We needed to be on the same page, and fundamentally the majority of the councillors, who were elected by the community, and the former general manager were not.
‘The former general manager was not singlehandedly responsible for delivering sustainable economic development. It is a team effort and involves the elected body, the organisation, businesses and the community through a collaborative approach, which we will continue to pursue.
‘There has certainly been a personal price to pay for this council decision, but one that I am willing to wear for the greater good and future of the Tweed community, which I love and am proud to represent. Sometimes good leadership is about taking hard decisions.’
Pottsville Community Association president Chris Cherry said the division’s recommendations gave ‘closure’ to the issue.
Ms Cherry said ‘it was clear’ from the report that the GM’s termination was found to be reasonable in the circumstances, but that ‘details of those circumstances may never be revealed to us in the community due to confidentiality’.