Dubious anniversary looms

December 20, one year ago, MidCoast Council’s GM, Glenn Handford resigned in a shock, unexpected announcement  at the end of the Council meeting. He went out as he ruled, shoving through a self serving agenda ratepayers are left to endure.

Top of the list was the introduction of his “Gateway process” whereby the deserted hulk of the Masters building in Taree was snaffled up in a secret deal, gazumping a legitimate truck business from Macksville, to turn it into the official co-joined headquarters of the amalgamated councils now known as MidCoast Council. 

This bizarre scheme, swiftly known as the Masters nightmare, was conceived and conducted  behind closed doors, shocking councillors and community alike.

This exercise, now re-branded by council as the Biripi Way project, (references to “Masters” is banned) is likely to cost ratepayers upwards of $35 million dollars just to open the doors. That’s about $100,000 per staff member who will be relocated there. (And that’s not all the staff from the three previous councils.)

Boffins Rule

Since then, Council’s boffins, obscured by a veil of confidentiality provisions in the Local Government Act, and headed by the Director of Corporate and Business Systems, Steve Embry, and the anointed Manager Corporate Strategy and Development, Ms Lynn Duffy, have been working studiously at converting a Handford-square peg-thought-bubble into a very large round hole. 

Back in August this madness was approved by Council  on a vote of 5 to 1 (with five Councillors missing from the meeting).

How to pay for Masters, sorry, Biripi Way, then? 

It seems to be, by a convenient fire sale of valuable council assets, (to whom knows whose mates, waiting in the wings), to pay for the fit-out of the building, which Mr Embry states in his report as : “indicative cost for the Project is estimated to be approximately $18 Million”. 

The terms ‘indicative’,  ‘estimated’  and ‘approximately’ all in one sentence should bring shivers down the spines of those who remember the application of these terms in Port Macquarie for the financial disaster  called the “Glasshouse”. Councillors that voted for this ‘Financing Strategy’ resolution were David West, Len Roberts, Claire Pontin, Troy Fowler,  Karen Hutchinson; ie Three former Great Lakes Councillors, the number two Labor Councillor and the Mayor (drawn from a hat if you recall.) 

So what do we actually get for this ‘indicative’ and ‘estimated’ $18 Million initial outlay? What does it really include, and perhaps more importantly, what doesn’t it include that will be masked through other budgets and justification? Never mind the mental cartwheels of an inevitable “report” which juggled monies and came up with a rationale to support the madness Handford and co stuck us with. 

In his Report, (view “Saville Report” on Council’s website) Mr Embry states this ‘indicative’ and ‘estimated’  $18 million fit-out “is less than estimated in the Business Case previously presented to Council (refer to Attachment B).” 

Attachment B was that rather dodgy Saville’s Report which touted operational “efficiencies” of $110,865,656 from a move to Masters including the so called “culture transformation” which they valued at $76,228,738 benefit. 

A few of our readers with financial expertise shot that down in flames. And recently, a former MidCoast Council employee explained with much guffawing and rolling of eyes, what the “culture transformation’ idea was all about.

Apparently the former GM hired, at vast expense, (rumoured to be possibly one million dollars but our source couldn’t prove this,) the services of a “culture change consultant.” This dicey specialist was to analyse staff and assess their personalities, and adjust their behaviour with “circumplexes.” Don’t ask us what all that means. Needless to say there was a lot of laughter behind hands, but some staff took it quite seriously! 

Size Doesn’t Count ?

In the real world the culture of an organisation is not determined by the size, nor the shape or the architecture of a building, but by the people who form the organisation. People who take pride in their work and who respect their colleagues and naturally take ownership of the organisation.  Culture starts in this case with the Councillors (which, judging from their meetings is toxic), and it filters through the CEO or General Manager and on through the Directors and the Managers. 

If people are secure in their workplace and content with their professional inter-relationships, their workplace can be anywhere, especially given the instant connection through modern technology of the internet. 

Clearly issues still remain, as effectively the amalgamation was a management take-over by the Great Lakes Council. This was compounded with a great deal of dissatisfaction with the former Administrator and GM and the existence of the Pineapple Club. (See below re this exclusive little mob.) 

There is still a great deal of staff insecurity within the organisation, but a move to Masters in several years’ time is not the solution. The challenge is now and urgent for the new General Manager, who, hopefully, will have changed the culture/attitude/workplace mood before any relocation commences to a new head office.

Mr Handford’s legacy remains somewhere persistent, though diminishing through the retirement of so far one director and the unexplained backdoor exit of another director. Some other managers and staff have decamped to greener pastures or been quietly pushed. Sadly, through this clumsy ‘rationalisation’ Council has lost some very experienced and good people. 

The new GM now has the opportunity and clean air to restructure the organisation, to give some confidence and create security for the staff and to change the ‘culture’ within the organisation without the need to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on consultants and advisors.

What’s in it for us? 

So what do we ratepayers get for the $18 million we’ve spent? Does the fit-out  include, or not include, the entire building?

What facilities will be provided for the ratepayers in this new building? Will there be meeting rooms, a glitzy Council Chamber that can seat a reasonable number of people, not like we have now in Taree or Foster?  Will it include a multi-purpose Town Hall or a Civic Centre for public and community events?

Usually when a government agency spruiks a new project, particularly any form of construction or a building, the community is blasted with glossy images and graphics displaying the design and appearance of the facility. We have no idea of what is proposed, no design drawings or how it has all been costed – it’s all been projected as ‘confidential’ or that other weasel term when they don’t want you to know details –  ie ‘commercially sensitive.’

Community Consultation and Late Reports

Curiously, a pattern has developed within the MidCoast Council where there are constantly ‘Late Reports’ to Council.  A ‘Late Report’ means the community doesn’t get a fair and reasonable opportunity to properly review the Council report and to comment as it’s whipped in at the last minute, late in the day. Sometimes a ‘Late Report’ means that the community isn’t even aware of the subject matter until council makes a decision.  

It appears this Master’s saga, sorry, The Birripi Way Show,  has been conveniently plagued with ‘Late’ and usually ‘Confidential Reports’. This is a subject of real public interest and concern and as such the community has a right to be reasonably informed and in a timely and transparent manner. One also has to ask the  bleeding obvious question: Why are reports from Mr Embry’s department habitually late, so rammed through with no discussion or public input?

Labor’s Promise

The next NSW State election is scheduled for 23 March 2019. Opposition Leader, Luke Foley has previously promised to support plebiscites on council de-mergers in all newly created Council areas that were the subject of forced amalgamation. 

Our Local Labor Candidate Cr Keegan is on the record as saying:

“I support the policy of voters in MC Council having the right by Plebiscite to seek to “ secede from  MCC “ . The way the forced merger was instituted by the LNP government makes the process expensive and complicated.”

So, should Labor be elected into government there is a very serious and real prospect of a public plebiscite being conducted to possibly de-merge the three Councils or perhaps re-configure the Council boundaries.

We understand from a recent conference of local government managers that a number of inner Sydney amalgamated Councils are now holding off on any major expenditure decisions until after the next State Election. Perhaps our GM and Council should also be this prudent!

Dodgy economics?

This Masters debacle has been sold to the community on the whim of the former General Manager who was determined to acquire the building without any preliminary studies nor a cost benefit analysis, let alone transparent consultation.

The Council’s commissioned Saville’s report to justify the whole Masters shebang has been questioned and trashed by a number of qualified business people with extensive financial backgrounds from around the district.  

The acquisition was rushed and once the Council bought the building they were stuck with making it work.

It is this approach of making the building work that is of real concern as it has led to the exclusion of considering other perhaps more practical and realistic options and solutions.

The assertion that all the white collar Council staff will be located in one building is not feasible.  And centralising everyone under one roof was never a plan previously. Had this building not been available, there would not have been any consideration of moving all staff into one location for years, if ever.

The Gloucester Office and staff will always remain in Gloucester. The MidCoast Water staff had reasonable facilities in both Forster and Taree, and didn’t need to be relocated. Rather conveniently the MidCoast Water office in Taree has now been rented out to the NSW Police for several years (on a modest rental) and the staff have been jammed into to the existing offices in Taree and Forster.

We’re told it will save costs by centralising the Council. 

What about the 100 – 150 staff in Forster who will travel to Biripi Way each working day? They will be compensated with travel allowance benefits. Let’s say $50 a week per person. That’s almost $400,000 extra per year.

Easy Communication

We live in an age where you can both speak and see the person with whom you are communicating over your mobile telephone and that person can be in another country, and communication is just fine. In many offices, people don’t bother to walk down the hall to another office, they email or Facetime or just telephone the person to speak to them.

Our Council needs to be thinking and planning ahead for the next twenty years. Stuffing a mob in a box inside a very expensive outer box is rather unproductive thinking.

Did they ever consider –

Costing a purpose built office in either Forster or Taree?

If space was an issue did they consider building an additional floor on top of the Taree Office?

Did they consider building extensions onto the MidCoast Water Office in Taree – plenty of space there?

Did they consider utilising that mythical Forster Precinct Development which is supposed to house a new $18 million dollar library?

Did they consider leasing space in the myriad of cheap rental accommodation for various council business units around the district?

And has anyone considered the economic impact of removing 150 people from the Forster shopping precinct? And similarly from the Taree shopping precinct? There will be an impact on discretionary expenditure. 

The devil is always in the detail and we seem to be short on details. 

To date the costs we’re told have been – $7 million for the building, preliminary investigations have been $164,000. Now the estimate for the fit-out, without any detail, is $18 million. This is over $25 million before all the extras are publicly identified and then there will be the typical Council cost blow outs, and, hello, $35 million, here we come.

So get ready for the Community Consultation. Judging by the way things are now playing out, it’s likely that they will throw a limited  community consultation in the holiday period leading up to Christmas, when people’s minds are focused on many things. A very convenient strategy, reminds me of Transgrid.  Make sure you participate in any public meetings, plebiscites and surveys, and do watch out for those tricky double meaning questions. Bring a notepad and a calculator! 

And perhaps, smelling salts.  . . .

The Pineapple Club is our moniker for a circle of individuals associated, then and now, with Friends In High Places in Forster. This circle of former colleagues, mates and lovers, meets regularly at a certain coffee shop/café one afternoon a week to hob nob and perhaps plot our future. Certain people MIA or now pursuing careers in the public sector, or under the wing of the former GM, re-appear on occasion, bold as brass, as my grandmother used to say.  

Nana also used to say. . . Pride goeth before a fall.  And, Be careful who your friends are.

DM

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