Belcarra reforms have steadily made it impossible for the South Burnett’s Mayor and Councillors to talk to Council staff, and now the reforms are also limiting how well they can perform in their jobs (Photo: SBRC)
Deputy Mayor Gavin Jones says it is safer for a Councillor to say and do nothing

May 25, 2021

South Burnett councillors have admitted they are too scared to speak to staff in case they get reported for breaching Belcarra legislation.

At last week’s Finance standing committee meeting, several Councillors said Local Government rules had grown so complex they were having a serious negative effect on how Councillors do their day-to-day work.

The Belcarra reforms – intended to bring more openness, transparency and integrity to the State’s local governments – were introduced by the State Government in 2017 and have gradually been strengthened.

Deputy Mayor Gavin Jones said the latest reforms had created “a minefield” where it was often safer to say and do nothing, than say or do anything and risk being hauled before the Office of the Information Commissioner (OIC) for a breach.

Cr Kirstie Schumacher said she had accidentally fallen foul of the new laws just a month after her election.

She now felt she worked in a “culture of fear” rather than part of a team, and she hated it.

This fear was so profound she copied all her email replies to CEO Mark Pitt to ensure she was not accidentally breaking the rules a second time.

Cr Schumacher admitted that when she recently had computer problems, she was too scared to ring Council’s IT department to ask them if they could look into it because even such an everyday request would breach Belcarra rules.

Cr Danita Potter said she was drowning in emails and could desperately use administrative support to help weed through them, but was unable to ask for help because that would also be a breach.

Mayor Otto said the new laws were so bad he could not even talk with Council’s General Managers, and sometimes wondered if he could talk with CEO Mark Pitt.

This was because giving a direction to any Council employee – or even saying something that might be misinterpreted as giving them a direction – was enough to see him charged with misconduct by the OIC.

“The new laws Councillors now work under are very different to what happened in the past,” Mayor Otto told the meeting.

“I know a mayor in a rural council who has spent $40,000 in the last couple of years defending charges because he asked questions of staff which were then taken to be giving a direction.

“He has spent $40,000 out of his own pocket defending 14 allegations made against him to the government of misconduct and/or inappropriate conduct.

“That’s the world us Councillors (now) work in and sometimes I feel we get all responsibility and no rights, and that needs to change.”

The Mayor warned that if things did not change, the State Government could find itself short of councillors in the near future.

“No one will want to put their personal assets, their livelihoods, their personal money and their good name and reputation … at risk,” the Mayor said.

CEO Mark Pitt said he understood the issues Councillors faced.

He noted that changes to the Act which came into effect last October now allow Councillors to give directions to an employee who provides Councillor administrative support, provided  they are in accordance with guidelines made by the CEO.

This meant one possible solution might be to create a new “Councillor assistant” position to provide assistance to all six Councillors in a similar way to the Mayor’s personal assistant.

He suggested Councillors might like to consider this when they drew up their next Operational Plan.


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5 Responses to "Belcarra Creating ‘Culture Of Fear’"

  1. Greg Pomfret  May 25, 2021

    Who would want to be in local government? All these rules do are remove any elected official’s right to ask questions, on behalf of ratepayers, of council staff’s poor judgments or decisions that may not be in the ratepayers’ best interests.

    Reply
  2. Bill McIntyre  May 26, 2021

    Considering a councillor boasted in the community about removing a previous general manager, the laws might actually be doing what they are supposed to? Removing the ego-driven policy requiring staff to refer to councillors as ‘Cr…’ might help ease relations, too.

    Reply
  3. Curious  May 26, 2021

    It would be interesting to hear how councillors in other shires are handling this new law? Do they have the same issues? Or is it just a lame excuse in the South Burnett to justify the lack of action in some areas and matters? Reminds me of the famous picture of the 3 monkeys – one hiding his eyes, the second blocking his ears and the third covering his mouth.

    Reply
  4. Rod Long  May 26, 2021

    I believe the LGAQ has been taking this issue up with the State Government for some time and as recently as a few days ago it was reported they’re willing to go as far as the High Court if they need to. Good on ’em! When an elected Mayor and councillors can’t speak to staff without fear of being investigated something is clearly wrong with the system.

    Reply
  5. B  May 29, 2021

    Doesn’t seem all that hard to comply AND to still do the duty of an elected representative.

    Pretty clear this legislated action or change that occurred back in 2020 is to ensure the elected are separated from Council. As there should be, given the ability and likelihood of Councillors to interfere and or manipulate Council staff to benefit the elected Councillor separately from Council itself.

    Actions like a Councillor telling a Council staff member to perform outside of Council daily instruction, notably to be of re-election gains. The legislative changes are to rightly remove Councillors’ and or Mayors’ ability to manipulate voting likelihoods for their singular or “group” gain.

    Councillors are there to represent the residents absolutely. This doesnt equate, though, that Council and Council staff can be utilised at the whim of a Councillor, accountability increased aplenty as a positive also.

    Those complaining of these legislative changes surely are those wanting to direct Council staff at their whim.

    This is inappropriate surely, considering the democratic processes we all strive from our elected Reps, that actions or wants be voted upon or at least Council overall be aware PRIOR. Councillors are not the bosses/business owners in that ideological space over Council Staff.

    Seems to me the Legislation is plain and clear on its intent and compliance options.

    Reply

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