The case of the disappearing CEO

The City of Port Phillip’s CEO, Peter Smith has ‘disappeared’ to his residence in Adelaide where he came from before getting the job. He’s due back on August 18, according to the Mayor, but there are a lot of residents and ratepayers who rather wish he just stayed there.

Mr Smith is alleged to be being paid more than $400,000 a year and the combined salaries of his ‘leadership’ team  are about $10 million a year. It’s not possible to verify the $400,000 figure as it is no longer listed in a visible form on the newly developed website.

A local journalist, Greg Day, broke the news of his absence which would probably have passed unnoticed if the CEO hadn’t also been missing from various virtual meetings. The Herald Sun even thought it was newsworthy although billed it as an ‘exclusive’ despite Day getting it first.

There also seem to be a lot of ‘virtual’ absences. The CEO was virtually absent for two of the three recent main Budget meetings. The first in early May was a Q and A with the community; and, second was when the Community had the opportunity to make verbal submissions to the Council on the draft Budget. The one he did attend was in mid-May where he announced the implementation of the Council restructure.

As the new Local Government Act has prescribed community consultation policies you have to wonder how effectively the now prescribed community consultation was being practised in the City when the CEO didn’t think it worth his while to attend. But then regular readers would know of the Council’s long record on worst practice community consultation.

In the one budget consultation the CEO attended the blog asked whether the CEO and senior managers had taken a pay cut. The CEO confirmed that senior managers had agreed to forgo a 2% salary increase from July but not a salary cut.

The CEO absence has been defended by the Mayor saying that Council staff were working remotely so it didn’t matter where he worked from and that anyway he was coming back soon. Meanwhile, there are many who are not – like the teams disinfecting and sanitising playground equipment and street furniture or collecting rubbish and sweeping streets although, thanks to Jeff Kennett  they are largely contractors rather than employees. And whatever the Mayor says it is neither a good look nor good crisis management.

The CEO did however do what every self-respecting change managing oriented executive does – turn the place upside down with a re-organisation. While the pandemic and big drops in Council revenue are reasons to look closely at what the Council is doing it may not be the best time to embark on major structural changes especially just before departing to South Australia.

He did publish the proposed organisational structure but when reading it there are two remarkable features: there are still an awful lot of managers on the list and an awful lot of unfilled positions. In the midst of a crisis – if you did decide to re-structure you would imagine that a key part of it might be to fill the new positions you were creating.

The latest report for 2018-2019 also shows staff turnover running at 18.04% PA which suggests some deep cultural problems. One observable result of the turnover is that, if residents seeking information  about a problem which involves multiple contacts with the Council, they often find they start off talking with one ‘team leader’ only to discover on the next call that there is a new ‘team leader’ who then has to be briefed all over again on the original problem.

Significantly, the gaps in the management team, seem to be heavily focussed in one area – the environment – despite the city declaring a climate emergency last year and being a bayside suburb vulnerable to rising sea levels.

In the midst of the usual managerial nonsense there’s that awful word ‘change’ again. For far too many managers – particularly in a public sector infected by managerialism and corporatisation – change is an end in itself rather than something directed to a goal or objective.

The disappearing CEO has also presided over an expensive IT project. This is a $23 million specially deigned for Port Phillip ‘customer experience’ project for which it employed consultants KPMG. Four other neighbouring Councils are employing the same consultants for the same project in their areas. Why the Council didn’t cooperate to get the best price possible or a joint project is a mystery? The blog’s son – with much experience in the field – says the words all IT consultants love to hear is “we have unique needs” which inevitably results in projects that fail and cost far more than they would have if an off-the-shelf system was adapted.

On the other hand the Council will be having an election in October and the blog and others will have an opportunity to pass judgment on what’s been going on in the city. In the area the blog lives there is at least a new candidate, Peter Martin, who was principal of the local primary school and is deeply involved in the local community.

He is vowing, if elected, to only serve one term and then retire saying he is not using it as a stepping stone anywhere. He has one great advantage in his election – he has been one of the people along with local member, Martin Foley, and the Andrews Government – who has had some impact on rectifying one of the biggest problems Port Phillip faces.

The last Liberal State Government left Port Phillip with a planning and social disaster at Fishermans Bend where land was sold off to developers and Liberal Party donors and then rezoned to deliver huge windfall gains. Needless to say, no community provision for schools, public transport and other community facilities were made and now local councils and the State Government are trying to fix the problems.

Peter Martin was a strong proponent of getting two new schools built for the area and is now promising to address other problems like the dire state of the area around Station Pier – a pier of great significance to Victorian and local maritime, military, multicultural and recreational history.

Thanks to anti-terrorist policies post 9/11 the Pier has been locked away from entry for all the walkers, recreational fishers and others who traditionally used it. It gets used for cruise ships (a bane for all those residents who travel on the tram line the often grossly obese tourists use to get to the city) and the Spirit of Tasmania ferry currently docks there. The Tasmanian ferry is at some stage to be sent to Geelong which will raise a question about what can be done about the pier in the long part of the year when no cruise ships berth.

Peter Martin also has a history of standing up to State Governments of various persuasions in the interests of his school’s parents and children so we also wish him luck in taking on the City of Port Phillip bureaucracy.