Coffs Harbour City Council general manager Steve McGrath.
Coffs Harbour City Council general manager Steve McGrath. TREVOR VEALE/ The

GM gets caught in his own shake-up

COFFS Harbour City Council general manager Steve McGrath has suggested he may review his contract following debate on whether the general manager's role should be included in a spill of senior staff positions and on membership of the general manager's performance review panel.

"I think I might be reviewing my contract, given what happened in April and here tonight," Mr McGrath said to councillors at the close of the meeting.

A total of about 30 executive positions, including all four directors' roles, will be replaced by 16 new roles, including three directorships, as part of the first stage of the council's Transformation to Sustainability (T2S) internal restructure project, which is aimed at finding $3.2 million worth of savings over three years.

The T2S project has been driven by the GM, whose contract was renewed in April. Cr Nan Cowling, who is now on the GM's performance review panel, opposed the renewal.

On Thursday the councillors voted to adopt the new T2S organisation structure proposed by the consultants LKS Quaero Ltd.

Strong leadership is seen as an integral part of the transformation.

Cr John Arkan proposed an amendment that the GM be included in the same process as outlined in the restructure for all other (executive) staff, saying this was discussed at a briefing with the consultants.

Deputy Mayor Rodney Degens opposed the amendment, saying they had only recently re-appointed the general manager, who was listening to the community and major changes needed to be made inside the council which might not be readily accepted but needed to be put through.

"If we have words to the effect of the amendment, where is the leadership and what statement are we making?" Cr Degens said

"The GM is putting a case for the restructure of the council.

"If the changes are not to the benefit of the community, the GM will be held to account."

Cr Arkan disagreed, saying some directors were also recent appointments; it was about the culture of the organisation; the process needed to ensure transparency across the board and including everyone was best practice.

The general manager himself appeared surprised by the amendment, saying the issue discussed with him after the briefing had been whether the GM was to be involved in leadership and competency discussions.

Cr Garry Innes agreed with Cr Degens, saying he would hate to think they would employ T2S and not have the man who began it.

"If we are going to roll the GM as part of the T2S process, I don't think too many would apply for the job," Cr Innes said.

At this point in the debate, the general manager left the chamber, with the director of corporate business, Andrew Beswick, taking his chair.

"He's got us this far to begin to fix the problems - if we put him through the same rigmarole as earlier this year we are wasting his time," Cr Innes said.

"Putting his neck on the line is absolutely absurd."

Cr Sally Townley spoke against 'some parts' of the motion to adopt the new organisation structure and notify industry unions, saying each iteration of the T2S business case had received unanimous support and there had never been any denial that some jobs would be lost.

But she said the eight-page report to councillors provided scanty detail on the new structure and some information had been provided as late as 2pm and 3pm - just two hours before the 5pm meeting, leaving her with a lot of questions about one of the biggest decisions they would make as councillors, including the social implications.

Former mayor Cr Keith Rhoades, who also heads Local Government NSW, spoke for the move to adopt the new structure, saying the council was carrying the burden of 34 years of rate pegging in NSW which had seen councils 'crucified financially'.

He said TCorp reports had shown 80 councils in NSW, including Coffs Harbour, were financially vulnerable and one had already been placed into administration due to its financial instability.

Cr Nan Cowling, who favoured the amendment to include the GM position in the restructure position spill, quoted figures which she said showed the council's financial position had deteriorated since 2010 and asked what this showed about the decisions of the general manager, saying it did not show him as a good leader.

Mr Beswick quoted other figures to put Cr Cowling's in context, saying the financial position of council showed an underlying financial deficit of more than $10 million over the last five years.

He stressed that the council's operating deficit needed to be closed.

Cr Cowling was twice pulled up sharply by the mayor, who reminded her about the code of meeting practice, saying she had been spoken to before and she was not to make inappropriate comments about a staff member in open council.

"I will take the discussion into confidential session or shut you down," the mayor said.

"It is the ratepayers' right to know what goes on in council," Cr Cowling said.

"You do not have to pull the general manager apart," the Mayor said.

Council staff members crowded the gallery for the discussion on T2S.

A rescission motion to remove Cr Nan Cowling from the general manager's performance review panel and replace her with Cr Bob Palmer failed to gain majority support at Thursday's meeting when it was debated in confidential session.

Cr Cowling was voted on to the panel on August 14, volunteering herself for the role. At that time she was the only candidate as Cr Mark Sultana declined Cr John Arkan's nomination.