How two "protected sources" turned the spotlight on Strathfield

November was a tough month for Strathfield’s embattled councillors – six extraordinary meetings, more than 12 hours of bruising and rancorous debate.

If the state government decides to forcibly amalgamate the municipality with its neighbours in Burwood and Canada Bay, historians may judge the past four weeks a sorry epitaph for 130 years of history and achievement.

To an outsider, the late-night sessions spent dissecting the procedures around staff assessments, holiday leave and reporting would seem bizarre. Almost perverse. Surely, with an axe poised over the council’s very existence, there were more important things to talk about?

But the real battle for Strathfield – a council in the vanguard of resistance to mergers and, as a result, under virtual siege by the state government – has not only been fought at public rallies.

The municipality with an enviable record for good management has come under attack for just that. This has become the new battlefront.

Not one, but two investigations lasting more than a year and costing ratepayers tens of thousands of dollars have been conducted into largely historic procurement procedures.

Some point out that it is odd that matters dating back over two years have suddenly come under the spotlight just as the amalgamation debate is climaxing.

The collateral damage has been the hitherto-blameless reputation of Strathfield’s long-serving General Manager David Backhouse. Staff morale is “the worst it has ever been,” a source told the Scene

Some councillors have claimed during debates that have run hot well into the night that they can detect a change of tack from the state government. Councillors Helen McLucas, Daniel Bott and Raj Datta believe that, from November 3, the order went out from the state government: take out the general, and you win the war.

Certainly David Backhouse, a reticent figure who has mentored councillors behind the scenes for many years, appears to have become a target.

In all the cries over the lack of democratic process involved in the amalgamation debate, little attention has been paid to the scores of staff whose jobs are on the line.

These are the front-line troops of local government: the men and women who clean-up the asbestos and abandoned sofas strewn in our parks; who take the calls when storms batter houses and bring down trees; who keep services such as Meals on Wheels and childcare running; and who make life in an urban environment more tolerable.

Residents have become so concerned about the way in which the spotlight
has been turned on the general manager,
the Scenehas received letters pointing out his community achievements.

One well-known resident sent us a long list, including protecting residents from polluted land, backing resident campaigns and producing amenities for both the old and children.

“My recollection of these matters stand as a fine example of the leader we have in David Backhouse ... through thick and thin he has stood the test of time,” Patricia Giammarco wrote.

“This undermining of the staff is to have an administrator brought in and then the Strathfield Council will be squeezed out by boundary change.”

Jane Pistolese, leader of the residents’ action group that fought against the Australian Catholic University’s expansion plans, told the Scene: “It is with despair that I now find the general manager’s role in the defence of Strathfield is subject to an enquiry to embarrass him. I have found our general manager to be supportive of the residents and protective of the community’s interests.”

At the root of this debate is an investigation ordered by the Office of Local Government (OLG) about procurement procedures.

Two “protected sources” passed information to the OLG.

For a year, council managers had to report to a consultant company, costing ratepayers $54,000, on council procurement processes.

What is know as a “430 investigation” followed, and investigators issued a strongly worded report.

Council has replied – and five different authorities, including independent consultants and organisations within the state governernment, have endorsed these responses.

But Liberal Mayor Sang Ok claims it has not satisfied the powerful OLG.

He told councillors he has personally spoken to OLG’s acting chief executive officer, Tim Hurst, and reassured him council intended to deal with all issues raised.

Cr Ok said he fears the OLG could appoint administrators and sack the council.

He called the string of extraordinary November meetings, maintaining it was vital to tighten governance procedures to stop the OLG taking over.

During an interview with the Scene, the mayor maintainedthere was “nothing personal” in what he was doing and that
he and the general manager enjoyed a good relationship.

Mr Backhouse has been regularly assessed under strict local government staff procedures. In one recent document, his performance is rated with an “A” in all but five out of 40 criteria by Mayor Ok himself.

Another assessment, sent to Local Government Minister Paul Toole by legal company K&L Gates, states: “Council unanimously noted the overall performance of the general manager as significantly exceeding expectations.”

The Scenecan reveal that Mr Backhouse is at personal peril from these moves. He could face a personal surcharge of hundreds of thousands of dollars for expenditure – even though he maintains it was officially sanctioned by the councillors.

It would be a bitter blow after decades of service.

Strathfield is a $30 million-a-year public authority, serving the needs of 37,000 residents with a broad range of cultural backgrounds. Sources say there will always be some procedures that are overlooked, and no-one is suggesting anything other than mistakes.

They say it is strange that suddenly in 2013, Strathfield came under investigation by the OLG. 

First there was an order examining almost every process. Then came a more personal investigation.

A 430 order is a draconian part of the Local Government Act only used if “a council’s conduct is having a serious impact on the local community”.

Did the subjects of this investigation fit this criteria?

One was the funding of the legal fight against the expansion of the Australian Catholic University (ACU), a battle sanctioned by councillors many times and demanded by a residents’ protest group.

Another was the management of a local golf course at Hudson Park, which lost money.

Lastly, and more significantly, was the appointment of consultants to help find funds for the massive Town Centre project. Over a period of more than four years, they were paid almost $900,000. 

However, the figure was well known – and frequently referred to in this newspaper as part of the cost of completing the master plan for one of the biggest projects in the Inner West.

The Town Centre project is particularly contentious because it involves purchasing property and impacts on some of the most expensive real estate in the municipality.

A report on the investigation was recently submitted to Strathfield councillors. They voted overwhelmingly to support the general manager and his staff, dismissed the findings and sent a note to the OLG.

But Mayor Ok believes another submission is necessary and maintains the matter was not closed.

There are no suggestions that the team which carried out the 430 investigation acted improperly. But the anonymous nature of
the “protected sources” who reported to it has posed questions over their motives.

Were they looking out for the public good? Or simply, as Cr Helen McLucas maintains, trying to besmirch the council’s reputation so more compliant managers or administrators could be appointed?


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