7 April, 2023

'We must do better' CEO says council will lift standards

Horsham’s top public servant has pledged to turn around the leadership vacuum that has haunted the council chamber over the past 11 years. Responding to a six-month investigation into Horsham Rural City Council’s governance processes - which...

By Tony Curran

HRCC CEO Sunil Bhalla.
HRCC CEO Sunil Bhalla.

Horsham’s top public servant has pledged to turn around the leadership vacuum that has haunted the council chamber over the past 11 years.

Responding to a six-month investigation into Horsham Rural City Council’s governance processes - which indicated a "lack of long-term corporate knowledge" and an "absence of leadership qualities and behaviours" among community leaders and councillors - CEO Sunil Bhalla said council would set about improving its standards by encouraging more people to stand for election.

Municipal monitor Jude Holt was appointed by State Minister for Local Government, Melissa Horne, in July last year to observe, advise and report on HRCC governance processes and practices.

She completed her assignment on January 31 and presented her final report last week - recommending council address in particular the disconnect between community interest in council affairs and an apparent revolving door of inexperienced, elected councillors.

The rate of attrition of councillors is among the most concerning aspects of the running of Horsham Rural City Council, ​Ms Holt​ said​.

Only 26 candidates have put their hands up to become Horsham councillors over the past 11 years - 22 of whom had never taken office before.

Ms Holt said the relatively poor ​willingness of local people to stand, and the turnover of councillors once appointed, was a “significant” indicator of a lack of corporate knowledge.

She said this reluctance had arisen despite ​​community ​interest and interaction regarding council’s activities, programs and projects.

From a registered voter enrolment of about 16,000 people, HRCC managed to attract just nine, 14 and 11 candidates – made up of 26 individuals – to council elections in the past 11 years.

Of even more concern, according to Ms Holt, was that all but four councillors elected during this period were new to council.

“HRCC has seven councillors,” Ms Holt said.

“The current cohort are all first-time councillors except for one councillor who is in his second term (Les Power, who was first elected in November 2016).

“During my appointment a councillor resigned (Di Bell) and a new councillor was elected via countback on September 6 2022 (Bob Redden).

“In 2020 six of the seven councillors were first-term councillors​, in 2016 four of the seven councillors were first-term councillors and in 2012 five of the seven were first-term councillors.

“Over three election periods only four councillors were returning councillors; there have been 17 councillors during this period.”

Ms Holt said council’s record of “consistent turnover” was “significant due to the lack of long-term corporate knowledge and strategic and historic context within the councillor cohort”.

While pinpointing reasons for this reluctance to serve on council was not part of the municipal monitor’s brief, she did note both “conflict between the councillor cohort” and “tension between councillors which escalated at times to disrespectful behaviours”.

“It is my view that there was an absence of leadership qualities and behaviours expected of community leaders and councillors in line with the councillor code of conduct,” Ms Holt said.

She balanced this by saying that “councillors commenced a facilitated program to focus on building trust between the group and identifying accepted behavioural practices”.

In her report to the minister, Ms Holt recommended that HRCC work towards encouraging greater resident participation in council by creating a community leadership program.

“HRCC has a history of low candidature numbers at elections (yet) at the same time community members and community groups appear to be interested in council’s activities, programs and projects through social media interactions and attendance at council meetings,” she said.

According to the Australian Electoral Commission, voter turnout at the polls is also consistently above 80 per cent, and a relatively low number of informal votes (less than five per cent) were being cast.

“However, that interest does not appear to be translating into candidates,” Ms Holt said.

​Mr Bhalla said council had accepted the report’s recommendations and it had started work on “an implementation plan”.

“As an organisation we all share a common goal to do the best we can for our community and we are always looking for opportunities to improve,” he said.

‘We thank Ms Holt for the assistance she provided across her six-month appointment.

“It’s now up to us to deliver the improvements that have been highlighted.”

He said council would invest in a community leadership program to support potential candidates at the 2024 local government election, and that details would be announced “in the coming months”.

Minister Horne acknowledged the work by Ms Holt “in helping the council transition back to good governance, processes and practices”.

Mr Bhalla joined HRCC in 2018, implementing a staff restructure and overseeing the adoption of a 20-year “community vision”.

At the beginning of this year his contract was extended by another four years.


Most Popular