The relationship between council staff and elected officials is often delicately balanced, and can make or break a local council.
A good relationship is often the key to good governance, while a rocky relationship and a lack of respect can lead to the demise of a council, with general managers and councillors often resigning.
Wingecarribee Shire Council in the Southern Highlands is no stranger to troubled relationships between elected officials and council staff members.
Suspended Wingecarribee Shire councillor and former council staff member Peter Nelson said it was the council staff that were the nuts and bolts of the organisation.
Mr Nelson previously worked at several councils in different roles within the organisations before he became a councillor.
"Being a councillor you come to find that councillors don't really work that hard," he said.
"The staff do everything.
"If you have a good mayor that can work with the general manager and they click, then you get a really good functioning council."
However, Mr Nelson said that as a councillor he felt that his hands "were often tied due to the state government."
"The state government often interferes particularly in the planning issues," he said.
"My biggest issue was that I didn't want to send ratepayers and the council to land and environment court.
"That was how I looked at planning issues.
"I didn't have any vested interest, apart from whatever the planning laws said. You nearly have to go with every staff recommendation."
Former Bega Valley Shire Council general manager Leanne Barnes said the relationship between staff and councillors was one of collaboration to achieve the policy direction and operational direction of the council
"The council only employs one person and that is the general manager/CEO," she said.
"The GM/CEO is then responsible for the staff of the organisation. The council set the council's budget and signs off on the senior organisational structure.
"Staff, through the general manager, provide professional advice to council for their consideration."
Ms Barnes said that despite some staff recommendations being rejected by councillors, it didn't create an uneasy relationship.
"The council staff are professionals, they provide their advice and information for councillors to consider.
"Staff will also assist councillors to draft resolutions on a matter.
"Once the council determines a direction by resolution council staff implement that resolution. Staff are aware of the roles of the elected body and the staff."
Ms Barnes said that in every relationship there were personalities and egos in play, however in her time as general manager she "always made clear to councillors and to staff the roles and where the lines were."
"In the vast majority of local government situations elected councillors and staff are there for the right reasons which are to serve and support their communities and their places," she said.
"This is consistently reinforced in the various arrangements and codes of conduct that set the framework for how councillors and staff behave.
"If a councillor had an issue or raised something directly with staff it was brought to my attention and all councillors were provided the information/response."
Former general manager of Armidale Regional Council Susan Law said the relationship between council staff and councillors was dictated by the Office of Local Government.
"It comes down to respect for each other's roles," she said.
Ms Law did not wish to comment on her own experiences in Armidale Regional Council.
Recently Wingecarribee Shire Council was placed under administration, with the Minister for Local Government Shelley Hancock citing a "breakdown of relations between councillors and senior staff."
It's not the first time egos and personalities have affected Wingecarribee Shire Council.
As far back as 2013, the Division of Local Government (DLG), as it was then called, had lashed out at Wingecarribee Council for its "inaction" in resolving "issues" between councillors.
In a report on the council (Promoting Better Practice Review) the DLG found issues of poor relationships between councillors and staff, councillor interference in operational matters and a rise in the number of Code of Conduct complaints in the Wingecarribee.
Not much has changed in 2021 for Wingecarribee Shire Council. A report into the response to the 2019/2020 bushfire season found there was interference amongst the now suspended councillors. A second report conducted by an independent consultancy firm also reported interference by councillors to predetermine recommendations, especially on planning proposals.
Wingecarribee Shire Council isn't alone.
Several councils have faced allegations of dysfunction, with staff and councillors either sacked or resigning from their position.
Armidale Regional Council faced similar problems in 2020 when the councillors were suspended following infighting.
Read also: A tale of three councils: Part 2, Armidale
When the interim administrator, Viv May, finished his stint after the council's suspension in 2020, his report to the Minister for Local Government said deep divisions existed and the council was not providing a proper and safe place of work for its staff.
Port Macquarie-Hastings Council is also no stranger to council dysfunction. A full public inquiry in 2007 by the then Minister for Local Government Paul Lynch resulted in the council and its mayor being dismissed and an administrator initially appointed for four years.
Two administrators quit before a third, former council director Neil Porter, steadied the ship until the 2012 council elections. Three general managers also walked in and out the door.
There's a lot to digest, but there's one thing for certain, respect between council staff and councillors is paramount to productive and functional council.
Journalist at the Southern Highland News.
Journalist at the Southern Highland News.
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