Report slams Cockburn

CHILDISH, disruptive, argumentative, meddling, factionalised, shocking, inappropriate, acting without authority and even apparently drunk; the latest official inquiry into Cockburn council has laid bare the chaos that prevailed as its relationship with CEO Stephen Cain imploded.

While the inquiry report hasn’t recommended sanctions against any staff or councillors beyond mandatory “training and mediation”, it paints a picture of poor governance, conflicts of interest and regular breaches of confidentiality.

Mr Cain’s contract was terminated on April 16 last year, six months after he took stress leave claiming the city was not a “safe” workplace and he was facing increasing “harassment and bullying”.

The local government department’s report criticises that sacking, noting that under current regulations, introduced on February 3 this year, it would be considered unlawful because it was made without a majority vote of council.

“… it has also long been the position of the department that as a council is required to appoint a CEO by way of an absolute majority decision, good governance principles suggest that … the termination of a CEO should also be decided by way of absolute majority,” the report said.

It also revealed the city secretly spent about $190,000 on lawyers to deal with a Fair Work Commission bullying complaint lodged by Mr Cain against mayor Logan Howlett, councillors Lee-Anne Smith and Kevin Allen, and then-acting CEO Stuart Downing. 

The law firm also helped Mr Howlett and Cr Allen prepare witness statements for the Fair Work hearing, and separately represented Mr Downing in the proceedings on the basis that his interests aligned with the council’s and it wouldn’t affect the overall bill.

But not all councillors were informed about the large bill until after the complaint had been dealt with and dismissed by the commission.

“… as per city policy, council approval should have been sought prior to the administration authorising actions in respect to the Fair Work Commission proceedings,” the report authors argue, also noting the legal bill went well beyond a discretionary $10,000 the CEO can spend in emergencies.

The report describes the April 16, 2020 online meeting as “chaotic and lengthy” and Mr Downing was criticised for helping Cr Smith draft the motion which led to Mr Cain’s demise, despite being told to “butt out” by the mayor.

Covert

The acting CEO later told investigators he did back off, but they unearthed an email he’d sent to Cr Smith with some suggested wording and parts of a report into misconduct Mr Cain was alleged to have committed while on forced “special paid leave”.

“Meeting minutes show that when the email was sent at 9.30pm, council was debating Cr Smith’s motion to terminate Mr Cain’s contract as CEO,” the report said.

“The acting CEO’s seemingly covert attempt to assist Cr Smith with wording for her motion demonstrates at minimum, a lack of respect for the mayor, elected members and of the meeting process itself by 

not including other elected members present at the meeting.

“At worst, it could be viewed as an attempt by the acting CEO to inappropriately involve himself in council’s decision-making processes.”

The report also describes as “poor governance” a decision to allow Mr Cain’s underlings to help prepare a report into his employment, giving them access to information which should have been confidential.

Another email unearthed by the investigators “referred to accusations of inappropriate material about Mr Cain” being circulated by a manager who had also been advising the acting CEO.

The report said the city should have sought external experts to ensure any advice about Mr Cain’s employment “was completely impartial and free from the apprehension of bias”.

Mr Howlett, Crs Allen and Smith, and Mr Downing were also singled out for not declaring an impartiality interest when Mr Cain’s contract was terminated on the basis they were the subject of his bullying complaint.

Crs Allen and Smith had declared an interest related to a “disparaging” email they’d sent to an unnamed former councillor about the previous year’s extension of Mr Cain’s contract, but the report said that wasn’t enough.

The department’s report was to be tabled and debated at the council’s ordinary meeting on Thursday evening as the Herald was going to press.

It has recommended the city undergo an independent governance review within three months and for new CEO Tony Brun to report back to the department’s director general within six months.

The report also notes that behaviour has improved since the inquiry was launched.

 by STEVE GRANT

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