By Cr Basil Cameron
Poorly considered comments from the departing general manager (GM) in a recent report to Council have rightly stirred up much discussion in our little democracy.
The tensions leading to this final spray have been evident and building since late last year, when a struggle between the general manager and the mayor spilled out over the Byron Town Centre Masterplan implementation.
No doubt there is, and probably always will be, tension between elected councillors and the administration.
It comes with the territory. However, in my opinion, the general manager crossed the line by entering the political debate with his commentary and undermined good governance by failing to apply consistent policy and fair process over a long period.
Too often his actions and his directions to staff proceded without consultation with the elected council and, critically, in the absence of any resolution of Council.
Declining standards of governance have been a matter of concern for me going back to the previous council, and I have spoken up both behind the scenes and in open council.
Despite my criticisms, it has been difficult to get a focus on any substantial action or reform, in part because popular political narratives have given cover to some ‘Courageously avoiding responsibility’ as noted by the Echo editor.
The truth is that the general manager’s actions were largely a product of the most important relationship in the organisation – his relationship with the mayor.
As an experienced operator, the general manager gave every indication that he understood the mayor’s political imperatives and ensured these were catered to.
In the previous council where the mayor was in the political minority, this was largely limited to skewing process (eg the disbanding of the Tourism Advisory Committee), although there were occasions where the pair made decisions later announced as a fait accompli.
One example was the ‘commitment’ given to Byron Bay businesses to quarantine a percentage of paid parking revenue given prior to any decision of the elected council.
After the last election, the perception that the mayor commanded a majority seemed to deepen a mutually beneficial relationship.
The mayor was given access to a research officer to assist in the development of his pet projects while the general manager was given a free rein over projects important to them both, notably the Byron Bay Masterplan implementation.
It is clear from a report to the Finance Committee last week that more than $120,000 has been spent without a budget or backed by resolution.
Behind the scenes, the general manager was also giving direction to staff inconsistent with Council’s resolutions. The full extent of these transgressions are only now becoming apparent.
While it is not possible to know who directed whom in all cases, it is clear that the mayor was aware at times.
Avoiding public scrutiny
It also seems likely that staff felt unable to bring these issues to the attention of other councillors owing to the signals sent by the mayor in his willingness to bypass good process.
In particular, his repeated attempts to push certain developments contrary to policy and staff advice, something he rightly complained loudly about during the previous council.
The reliance on urgency motions at the end of meetings to pursue these and other matters avoids public scrutiny, as there is no mention of the items in the council’s meeting agendas and no opportunity for residents to speak on the matters in public access.
One such decision to give over public space to a business has ended up in court to the detriment of ratepayers.
As Council is looking to engage a new general manager, it is clearly an opportune time to be discussing the issues and making sure that the next occupant of the position has the principles of good governance front of mind every day s/he is in the job.
Similarly they must be tasked with ensuring processes and a culture that embeds these principles into the organisation.
Perhaps it is the case that the mayor believes the end justifies the means.
However, it should be clear that if the elected council is to best serve the community, the mayor needs to demonstrate and insist on sound governance in all his relationships within Council.
Otherwise, he risks the new general manager again getting away from him, the council and the community.
• Basil Cameron has been an independent councillor since 2008.