When the newly elected councillors were appointed to Bega Valley Shire Council in 2016, the then general manager Leanne Barnes asked an experienced consultant to work with them.
The task was to create an agreement to work together effectively, during both private and public meetings, for the good of the community they serve.
The Bega Valley meetings were informally known by some councillors as the "bonding sessions", but it's understood this was very much a tongue-in-cheek name.
However, despite the consultant's long history of working in conflict resolution and an impressive CV, including work with several other councils, the job at Bega Valley proved difficult.
"This is one of the worst cases I have ever worked on in my 30-year career," the consultant, who asked not to be named for professional reasons, told ACM.
"The lack of regard for respectful debate by some of the councillors was appalling. There were several serious 'codes of conduct' breaches," the consultant said.
"Codes of conduct take valuable resources from council staff and cost ratepayers money. All for nought when the governing body is a toothless tiger.
"Even when found guilty, as has been the case in BVSC, there have been no consequences. If these councillors had been federal or state government employees, they would have been fired."
The lack of regard for respectful debate by some of the councillors was appalling.
Previous councillor and ex-mayor Sharon Tapscott, who left council for family health reasons 12 months ago, confirmed that there were "a few sessions" with the consultant which were attended by councillors.
The consultant had worked previously with groups who were very polarised at the beginning, but found most groups could find common ground and could work together better.
"As a general rule you can find common ground - for example with councillors - a passion to help their community.
"I went in optimistically and at the beginning everyone agreed to a charter on effective and respectful behaviours; in other councils this had worked," the consultant said.
"Mostly we can get people in the tent, but here we couldn't," the consultant said of the move to form some sort of cohesion in the councillor team.
"They would agree to do things and then not do them."
Resources were devoted to trying to make it work, early on, but "no number of resources made it any better".
All we wanted was respectful debate but it never eventuated. In fact the bad behaviour seemed to get worse- Former Bega Valley mayor Sharon Tapscott
Ms Tapscott agreed saying that despite the sessions, they were unable to achieve the outcomes needed.
"All we wanted was respectful debate but it never eventuated. In fact the bad behaviour seemed to get worse," Ms Tapscott said.
After a couple of years of interventions the consultant told council as it wasn't making a difference, there was no point in continuing the group sessions. Work continued with individuals "to help protect themselves".
"Ironically the council staff and leadership are some of the best I have worked with. The leadership and staff I hold in very high regard.
"Some staff however, were seriously impacted by the bad behaviour of some of the councillors," the consultant said.
Some councillors were also impacted by the behaviour of their peers.
This resulted in individual consultations with staff and councillors which involved "strategies for managing a toxic culture".
"Usually, we might have one or two consultations a year, but with this group it was regular. I'm surprised they've been able to get any decisions through at all, given the polarisation."
The consultant believed there was a need for legislation that covered local government and councillors in particular and said that each code of conduct matter that goes to mediation can cost around $30,000.
"This is the first time I've ever spoken about my work. I don't normally have these strong opinions, but there's been collateral damage to individuals, and the voting community need to know who they are voting for, what they are motivated by, and hold them accountable, because no-one else can," the consultant said.
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