The recent history of general managers in the Lismore Council has been nothing if not chequered. With a very politically divided council, the question of exactly who should choose the new GM proved contentious last night in the Goonellabah chambers.
In another epically long Council meeting that lasted five and a half hours, bringing the total of the August and leftover July meetings to around 10 hours, councillors finally voted on who gets to choose the new GM.
The current interim General Manager John Walker arrived on the coattails of the new Council at the start, and it was clear that not all councillors are happy with that move.
A report prepared by the Governance & Customer Service Manager said that Council’s governing body (all the Councillors) is responsible for recruiting the general manager. ‘The governing body of Council should delegate the task of recruitment to a selection panel and approve the recruitment process,’ said the report.
‘The panel will report back to the governing body of council on the process and recommend the most meritorious applicant for appointment by the Council.’
The staff recommendation
The staff recommendation was that Council: 1. appoint the Mayor, the Deputy Mayor and a Councillor to the selection panel; 2. delegate authority to the above members of the selection panel to appoint an independent member of the panel; and 3. delegate authority to the selection panel to appoint a recruitment consultant to run the recruitment process once a request for quotation process has been undertaken.
An alternative recommendation
Councillor Guise was on his feet immediately to propose an alternative recommendation, which was ultimately successful. The amended motion was that Council: 1. convene a committee consisting of all interested councillors to commence the recruitment process for a General Manager; 2. request the Governance Manager to seek expressions of interest from relevant recruitment organisations with expertise in local government executive appointments to conduct the recruitment process for a General Manager; and 3. request the Governance Manager to convene a meeting of the recruitment committee to review the expressions of interest and select a provider.
Cr Guise said his alternative recommendation was about involving all councillors in the recruitment process for the General Manager. ‘I was a bit surprised to see the recommendation put forward that only three councillors and an outsider choose who the General Manager is, or recommends who the General Manager is. That to me is a very surprising and untoward departure from process – the very fact that we, us 11 counsellors gathered here tonight, are the governing body of Council and the sole employer of the General Manager.
‘My alternative recommendation is a return to due process and do practice, about us, as the governing body, taking part in the process – to the employment and recruitment of the General Manager – it’s about appointing a recruiter to manage the process so there can be an arm lengths person, who is experienced in this sort of thing, managing that process, and can be used as a counterpoint for any questions we may have, and to actually get a pool of candidates where Councillors actually get a choice as to who they recruit,’ he said.
Councillors shaping the process
Cr Guise said his alternative would allow Councillors to shape the process from start to end, so that Councillors, as the employees of the General Manager, aren’t left out of that very important decision. ‘It is an appointment that generally, on the scheme of things, is for a four-year contract, and as we know, from this new lot of Councillors, they moved to terminate the previous General Manager at considerable cost to ratepayers. So we don’t want another repeat of that. We want to ensure that we have all Councillors involved in this, so there is confidence in the next General Manager for Council. That can only be ensured while all counsellors are involved in that process and can shape how the candidates are long listed, how they’re shortlisted, and how that recommendation is brought to Council for final approval.
‘So please, councillors support this process so that we can all be involved in the recruitment of our General Manager for the ratepayers of Lismore,’ he said.
Councillors have to work with the GM
Cr Vanessa Ekins spoke in favour of having all interested Councillors in the process. ‘I’ve been through it quite a few times. I found it worked quite effectively. Most Councillors are interested in the General Manager because that’s the person that we work with. We also did that at Rous County Council in choosing the General Managers there. It’s not an awkward process. Just get together, have a look at the applications determine the shortlist and go through.
‘It’s pretty straightforward process, but I think it’s important that we’re all involved in that so that there’s trust between us when we’re having those discussions.’
Cr Ekins said that as Councillors could imagine, if there’s just the Mayor, the Deputy, a Councillor and one other, that Councillors would be wondering what’s happened at those meetings. ‘There’ll be a lot of questions when they put forward their recommendation to us. So, I’d urge you all – let’s all be involved in this.’
An important matter
‘It’s a really important matter, not just for us, but the entire Council staff and the community of Lismore that we get it right, that we have a discussion amongst ourselves about what kind of General Manager we need, what kind of skills we want moving forward, and that we’re all involved in that conversation. So, please support having us all on that committee,’ she said.
Cr Elly Bird said that in the distant past there wasn’t insight or understanding or clarity around the recruitment process. With the next (most recent ex-General Manager) all Councillors were included so the shortlist. ‘We went on the journey with the recruiters and participated in the full process around the appointment. It’s a lot easier for all Councillors to follow along if they have all of the information.’
‘Ultimately, it comes down to a vote by Councillors for the preferred candidates. And that’s how that person is employed.’
No confidence in that process
Cr Andrew Gordon said that, unfortunately, he had no confidence in that process. ‘We’ve seen the disastrous trail of General Managers. I’m going speak against this (amended) motion and speak for the recommendation.
‘I think the Mayor, the Deputy Mayor, and an appointed Councillor which we can vote on tonight, and a person from the public is probably more than enough. We have 11 opinions here on every topic every night, and that’s why we never get through a meeting. I just think that you’ve tried both. You’ve had a selection process with the General Managers [being recruited through] the Performance Management Review Committee, and you’ve also had a process of every Councillor and I think that the recommendation is is the way we should be.’
Cr Guise’s amended motion was then voted on, with Councillors Bird, Hall, Ekins, Jensen, Rob, Guise and Krieg voting for that motion, with Councillors Gordon and Bing voting against that motion, and the motion was carried.
They’re eating popcorn in the gallery
Lismore Council meetings have become a much-viewed stream over recent months and no-one has been more interested in the stream of the last two meetings than Councillor Darlene Cook, who has been sidelined by an injury.
After the meeting, Cr Cook spoke to The Echo and said she was very happy to see Council agreeing to a recruitment process involving all interested councillors to select the permanent General Manager.
‘In recent years, Council has recruited for a GM using a small selection committee for one recruitment, and a committee of all councillors for another recruitment. We found that engaging and having all Councillors participating on the journey enabled a wider range of input about the characteristics, abilities and experiences of a preferred candidate, enabled greater consensus towards the final selection.
‘Rous County Council also elected its general manager using a committee of all councillors.’
A lack of trust after Krieg team sacked last GM and appointed Walker
Cr Cook said there is a lack of trust within the current Council, engendered in part by the incoming Mayor and his team unilaterally sacking the previous General Manager, and appointing their own selected candidate to the job. ‘The recommendation tabled in the business paper was that the Mayor, the Deputy Mayor, one councillor and one independent community representative, be the selection panel to appoint the next GM.
‘This recommendation would, in my opinion, have not only excluded input from the majority of Councillors, but would also have presented a narrow and biased view of the attributes the preferred candidate would need to meet.
‘It would have been a process whereby only the views of a very few would determine the future of this council. Many Councillors and the community would be sidelined, and I believe, that would continue the climate of discord and distrust within the council chambers.
‘By involving all councillors in the recruitment, I can see the recruitment process being more open and transparent, the views of all will be considered and I believe, will improve relationships withing council and lead to better outcomes and trust in the future.’