Shire gets nod in State-funded review
By Michael Sinclair-Jones
A STATE-FUNDED review of the Shire of Toodyay has largely endorsed the council’s response to 23 adverse findings against the former council and previous shire CEO over the previous seven years.
The findings were tabled in State Parliament last October after a year-long inquiry.
Last month’s independent consultant review said a new council elected in 2019 was “on the whole, functioning properly and proper decision-making is taking place”.
It said current councillors had a “sound and productive working relationship” with new Shire CEO Suzie Haslehurst (right), who had “performed above expectations”.Read more
“All councillors interviewed spoke of the CEO in positive terms and of the improvements that the CEO had instituted since commencing the role in June 2020,” the review said.
Councillors said there was no “block or factional voting” at council meetings, and the review said it had found no evidence of factional voting at meetings held during a 16-month period to last February.
However, seven of the shire’s eight councillors (one was not interviewed) said “one or more councillors (had) behaved in ways or spoke using language” contrary to the Shire Code of Conduct and local laws governing meeting procedures.
They said one councillor “spoke in a disrespectful fashion concerning fellow councillors”.
Workshops and meetings could become strained “as a result of questions or comments directed at staff”.
Three senior staff said they had experienced “unpleasant and inappropriate behaviour” by councillors at workshops and agenda briefings.
The review said such behaviour for any reason – including frustration over reports containing inaccurate information – was “unjustified and inappropriate”.
The review said all councillors – including the presiding officer – had a public duty to object to any unacceptable language or behaviour at council meetings.
“This would demonstrate to the public that the correct standards of behaviour are important,” the review said.
Councillors were criticised for spending too much time talking behind closed doors.
The default position should be “openness and transparency” unless it exposed the council to “inappropriate legal or financial risk or be otherwise inappropriate”.
Items such as CEO recruitment, the new sport and recreation centre and shire contracts should be dealt with publicly, as occurs in “many” metropolitan councils.
However, staff reports needed to be more “succinct, clear and written in plain English”.
“Large swathes” of unexplained legislative material was unhelpful, confusing, unnecessary and intimidating.
“Financial information was, at times, difficult to comprehend and, on several occasions, contained significant and material errors,” the review said.
“Complex policy and strategy matters had been placed on the meeting agenda for a decision, giving the councillors little chance of comprehension of the subject matter that could lead to an informed decision being made.
“It should be understood and acknowledged by officers writing agenda reports that they do so, not only to inform and advise the councillors, but also members of the community.
“Reports should be written in such a way that a member of the community with reasonable literacy and numeracy skills can understand the body of the report and its alignment with the officer’s recommendation.”
Councillors complained that they were not more involved in policy development.
“Concern was expressed that draft policies or significant revisions had been submitted for decision without opportunity to effectively discuss and explore the context and purpose in their formative stages through a workshop process,” the review said.
Councillors knew about the shire’s May 2020 Corporate Business Plan but said it was rarely used as a key planning tool.
“Given the major capital expenditure of the new recreational facility and resulting significant increase in year-in year-out operating expenses, the Corporate Business Plan becomes an important tool in assisting the council in overseeing finances and allocating resources into the future,” the review said.
THe shire Corporate Business Plan needed higher priority as the council’s principal guide to strategic financial management.
The review recommended twice-yearly workshops for councillors and senior staff to “analyse, discuss and deliberate on allocation of shire finances and resources”.
The business plan needed to include a five-year forecast for income and expenditure that excluded non-cash items such as depreciation and asset revaluation.
“The inclusion of non-cash items – while necessary by law – can make understanding year-in year-out financial scenarios somewhat daunting for councillors and members of the community,” the review said.
Most councillors were unhappy to be “essentially isolated” from developing the shire’s Strategic Community Plan, which has yet to be finalised.
Some councillors said a draft plan failed to mention a need to manage community expectations and acknowledge careful and considered financial management of costs.
The 49-page review is published on the shire website and is due to be workshopped by councillors this month to enable them to vote on a response to the Director General of the WA Local Government Department.
Shire President Rosemary Madacsi said she was generally happy with the review.
“We are aware of areas that need change but have been limited by time and resources to act quickly,” she said.
Ms Madacsi said the shire had already spent the past 12 months taking steps to address areas that needed improvement.
Some of these were legacy issues from previous years.
“The council will also take a tougher line on conduct,” Ms Madacsi said.
Shire CEO Suzie Haslehurst said the review was a roadmap to where the shire should be focussing its efforts.
One improvement already being acted on was the introduction of council workshops at least once a month to discuss policy development and big or contentious issues.
Agenda reports to council meetings would be “clearer and less dense”.
An ‘action plan’ in response to the review is due to be decided at the council’s next ordinary meeting on Tuesday August 24.