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.