Calls for management clean-out at Moira Shire after damning report

Calls for management clean-out at Moira Shire after damning report

March 8, 2023

Key points

  • Union calls for clear-out of senior management at Moira Shire
  • Concerns remain about workplace safety at the council 
  • Commission of inquiry report found murder of council staff member may have been preventable. 

The union representing workers at the scandal-plagued Moira Shire Council is calling for a clear-out of senior managers implicated in an inquiry that found a “litany of failures by a dysfunctional leadership” that led to “an unsafe and toxic workplace”.

Local Government Minister Melissa Horne announced on Tuesday that the council had been sacked and it would be run by administrators after a commission of inquiry report was tabled in parliament.

Senior Moira Shire Council worker Rick Devlin was murdered by a colleague in 2021.

The state government launched an investigation into the council after a senior employee was murdered by a colleague in 2021, and a slew of other issues – including the council’s financial practices – have now been referred to the anti-corruption commission.

Tash Wark, the Australian Services Union’s deputy branch secretary for Victoria and Tasmania, said any person who had contributed to the toxic workplace reported in the inquiries findings should be sacked.

Wark said the union, which represented dozens of workers at the council across a range of departments, expected more members to come forward now that the council’s issues had been exposed.

“We would imagine there will be another wave of information that comes forward after people feel they’re in a position to share that,” she said. “That is current and former staff.”

After a seven-month probe, the inquiry report said it found widespread bullying, harassment and mismanagement at Moira Shire and referred the council’s alleged illegal dumping of toxic material to the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission, describing it as serious misconduct that put staff, contractors and residents at potential risk.

Wark said it was an extraordinary report that outlined negligence and bullying.

“It’s hard to imagine how a council could so woefully and wilfully mismanage and denigrate its staff,” Ms Wark said.

The report found Moira Shire chief executive Clare Keenan was prone to “losing her cool”.

The report found while governance of the council had been steadily eroding over the past decade, the commission said the appointment of the inexperienced Keenan exacerbated the issues at Moira Shire Council that had become “increasingly unstable”.

Workers’ compensation claims by council staff will have reached $2.25 million by 2023-24.

On Wednesday, Keenan defended her council, telling The Age the murder happened after she started in the role.

“The incident occurred very soon after I started my tenure as CEO of the council and my priority has always been and will continue to be for the welfare of my staff,” she said. “Immediately after the incident occurred, we implemented a range of measures to ensure we were providing our staff with every possible support, which we will continue to do.”

Moira Shire mayor Peter Lawless said he was proud of what the council had achieved and believed it was heading in the right direction.

“I do not agree with all the findings of the commissioners and there are elements of the report that I don’t believe to be accurate,” he said.

Lawless said the report did not reflect all of the positive feedback the council received.

“I have been heartened by the number of staff and residents coming forward to offer their support and share positive comments,” he said. “I feel for not only our community but also for the many hardworking staff that are incredibly committed to creating a better shire for everyone.”

The investigation into the council followed the murder of Rick Devlin, a senior council employee, by fellow council worker Andrew Paterson in August 2021. They had both worked at a depot in Nathalia, where colleagues had falsely accused Paterson of stealing kerosene, an accusation he deeply resented.

“Several key senior executives at the time of the murder and other senior staff including the Team Leader Workplace Health and Safety were well aware of the serious health and safety issues in the depots, especially but not only at, Nathalia,” the report said.

Commissioners Frances O’Brien and John Tanner concluded Paterson’s death may have been prevented if the council provided a safe and healthy workplace.

“It was the worst possible outcome of extended workplace conflicts, involving bullying and threats, leading to Mr Paterson being falsely accused of the theft of a small quantity of kerosene.”

The government will appoint a temporary administrator for the council for three months before hiring a panel of administrators that will remain in place until the 2028 local council elections.

Yarrawonga Community Action Group president Geoff Campbell said he had been troubled by the councillors’ voting practices.

“Their voting in a bloc was the biggest disappointing thing about them,” he said. “When you elect individuals you would hope they vote as individuals but hadn’t been.”

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