Mayor: Rotten council culture has been transformed
MAYOR Teresa Harding believes the culture at Ipswich City Council has been transformed more than two years after the council was sacked following a widespread investigation into corruption and misconduct.
The Crime and Corruption Commission’s Operation Windage not only resulted in two former mayors being charged, it painted a bleak picture of the working conditions for council staff.
As of June 30 last year, 16 people have been charged with 91 criminal offences.
Disgraced former mayor Paul Pisasale was sentenced to a jail term of seven-and-a-half years for sexual assault, fraud and official corruption crimes in September.
He will be able to begin his parole application from October 2022.
The CCC found a rotten culture existed at the core of the council, which went unchecked for years.
Investigations found there to be a lack of accountability for expenditure and public resources, inappropriate relationships between the council and the private sector and the improper use of power and influence for personal benefit.
A final report released as part of Operation Windage revealed staff feared their careers would be ruined if they made complaints about alleged corruption or misconduct.
“They knew that challenges to authority would not be tolerated; some employees who raised concerns had their hours reduced so significantly that they ended up leaving the council,” it noted.
“With employees discouraged from reporting corrupt activity, the behaviour was able to continue for a significant period.”
For many, Pisasale’s jailing felt like the start of a new chapter for Ipswich.
After more than 18 months of administration, residents voted in Cr Harding to lead the city into a new era and she was officially sworn in in April.
Her campaign was built on transparency and accountability and she secured 41 per cent of the primary vote, and 63 per cent after preferences.
Reflecting on her first six months in the job, Cr Harding believed the council had come a long way in a short time.
“The feedback I’m getting from the CEO, the senior executives and some of the branch levels and just with our interactions with council officers (the culture) has absolutely changed,” she said.
“I know there was a lot of anxiety as to who was going to get in what was going to happen but from what I can gather, by and large, the council officers know that the new council are abiding by the laws and we’re really happy to do so.
“I think the fact that we’ve been able to achieve so much in this first six months is due to the fact that the elected representatives and the council organisation are working so well together.”
Cr Harding believed the council was a better place for staff to come to work each day than it was two years ago.
“I think the elected representatives have a tremendous amount of respect for council officers and council workers,” she said.
“A couple of weeks ago I went out to the depots at Riverview and Yamanto and spoke with the people at the coalface.
“Certainly the feedback I have from them is things are very different.
“Previously, councillors would direct them to stop their work and go to so and so’s place and fix up their front yard.
“That just doesn’t happen anymore. We’re following the law, we’re following the processes and by doing that, we’re actually being efficient and saving ratepayers’ money as well and providing better service.”
Of the councillors sacked by the State Government in August 2018, veteran councillors Sheila Ireland and Paul Tully have returned to office.
The rest of the council are made up of political newcomers and the pressure was on to walk in and settle into their positions quickly amid the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
There were fears more issues were bubbling under the surface when deputy mayor Marnie Doyle resigned from her position in September, only to quickly backflip on that decision.
“Coming into council with what happened was always going to be a challenge,” Cr Harding said.
“But also coming in with COVID was a double challenge.
“As elected representatives, we didn’t have many support staff to help us. We walked in with thousands of requests from residents.
“All the councillors have been working incredibly long hours the last six months to do their workload.
“We delivered a budget on June 30 but also worked with residents on all the outstanding issues and I think they’ve done a terrific job.”
Cr Harding said launching the Transparency and Integrity Hub, the first of its kind in Australia, was a particular point of pride but she was still working to make more information accessible to residents so they can scrutinise spending.
Cr Harding said she was proud of her first six months in charge and her focus was on securing more funding for the fastest growing local government area in the state for vital infrastructure.
She said Ipswich was not getting its fair share of State Government funding, with more money being spent per capita in inner-city Brisbane, even with Ipswich’s population set to more than double to 530,000 by 2040.
“I’m really delighted that Ipswich is on the agenda for all the right reasons,” she said.
“In every decision we make, I can tell you we always stop and say ‘how will this benefit residents?’
“If it’s not benefiting residents why are we doing it.
“While we may not always be perfect, we’ll always be honest.”
Read more stories by Lachlan McIvor here.