An independent report commissioned by Dubbo Regional Council on its management of code of conduct complaints has revealed an alleged culture of mismanagement, inappropriate practice and disregard for its own staff.
After hiring human resource consultants Pinnacle Integrity to look into the way council had been dealing with its code of conduct complaints in May this year, a redacted version of the report was released in October.
The Daily Liberal has obtained a copy of the full, unredacted report, which was critical of the role played by the council-appointed internal ombudsman - filled by junior staff members who changed over time - under the direction of the then council chief executive officer Michael McMahon.
However, Dubbo mayor Stephen Lawrence said in his opinion there was "no criticism whatsoever" to be made of junior staff members.
He said they were performing their duties under the direction of the CEO.
Cr Lawrence claimed it was the CEO who was responsible for the complaints process.
The Daily Liberal has attempted to contact Mr McMahon numerous times. However, he did not respond via email and hung up the phone when called about the allegations.
Local Government Minister Shelley Hancock was also approached for comment but did not respond before publication.
As part of the inquiry, 18 code of conduct complaints received and dealt with between 2017 and 2021 were examined, and interviews were carried out with 26 current and former councillors, council staff and community members.
The report states that it had "identified systemic issues regarding the management of code of conduct complaints".
The report made eight recommendations to council to remedy findings that previous reviews of alleged misconduct by councillors and council staff had been investigated and resolved internally by people "without the authority to do so".
The recommendations were adopted by council which has declared many reforms either well under way or being implemented. The report highlighted continual "blurring of the lines" in the treatment of complaints.
According to the report, Mr McMahon allegedly did not follow the correct procedures on multiple occasions, and on a number of times complaints were finalised in the initial stages of a complaint being made, without proceeding to assessment or investigation.
The report also allegedly found that Mr McMahon was sending complaints to the internal ombudsman, who had no authority to act as a conduct reviewer and was not entitled to undertake the preliminary assessment or make decisions.
In one situation that was described as a "complete failure" of addressing a complaint, Mr McMahon allegedly finalised a matter when he was not entitled to do so.
On November 14, 2019, a code of conduct complaint was lodged against the then mayor Ben Shields, alleging he had conducted himself inappropriately at Wellington the day before.
The complainants were informed the matter was under investigation and then told four weeks later further witness statements were going to be obtained.
The next correspondence received by the complainants was a letter from the Mr McMahon advising them the matter had been finalised.
The failure of proper process amounted to a complete failure to address the complaint appropriatelyPinnacle Integrity
The report found no other witnesses were interviewed and went on to state "allegations contained in the letter of complaint were serious" and should have been referred to an independent reviewer.
"The failure of proper process amounted to a complete failure to address the complaint appropriately," the report said.
The report recommended consideration should be made going forward if an internal ombudsman directly employed by council served the best procedural and legislative interests of the organisation.
Conflicts of interest were also allegedly not declared by Mr McMahon and the internal ombudsman.
For example, in August 2018, Mr McMahon forwarded a code of conduct complaint from a member of the public to the internal ombudsman, requesting a preliminary investigation.
The complaint related to alleged actions of the then mayor and another councillor, during an incident that took place when they had spoken at a council meeting.
In an email to the internal ombudsman, Mr McMahon sets out his recollection of what had occurred at the council meeting and his interpretation of the mayor's actions. In the preliminary assessment by the internal ombudsman, it confirmed the CEO's interpretation and the matter was dealt with by way of alternative means.
When writing to the complainant, the internal ombudsman identified themselves as also being a witness to the allegation outlined, and the report found that a conflict of interest.
In another email to Mr McMahon, the internal ombudsman said they found the complaint was "not substantiated", which is not permitted under code of conduct procedures.
The Office of Local Government wrote to the council in May 2020, also critical that the internal ombudsman had undertaken the role of a conduct reviewer.
In its letter to the council, the Office of Local Government said complaints about councillors and the chief executive officer should be conducted by an independent conduct reviewer for assessment or investigation, and not a person directly employed by council.
In its letter, the Office of Local Government said the determination made was "potentially rendered unsafe by the significant departures from the requirements of the procedures in the consideration of this matter".
The report also revealed a serious level of distrust in the code of conduct policy by council staff.
Following interviews as part of the inquiry, a majority of current and former staff held the belief that on occasions councillors "conducted themselves very poorly" and "overstepped the line" by attempting to become involved in or find out about operational matters including the handling of complaints, and leaked confidential information regarding complaints.
A majority of those interviewed as part of the inquiry said they believed if a staff member made a code of conduct it wouldn't remain confidential and could be subject to some form of reprisal.
For example, a code of conduct complaint was lodged in January 2021 when a councillor approached a member of council staff, allegedly seeking certain confidential information.
Mr McMahon wrote to the councillor on February 2, 2021, outlining a list of allegations and invited a response, indicating he wanted information prior to him considering a possible code of conduct breach.
Upon the councillor's response, Mr McMahon determined to take no further action.
In the report, council staff reported that a councillor might make a code of conduct complaint on behalf of a constituent and then continue to press for how the matter should be handled, or continue to make inquiries as to how the matter was being handled.
"Council staff said that on a number of occasions during the term of the current council, they had difficulty in explaining this concept to councillors," the report read.
"Council staff said that this was part of the 'culture' of council - that breaches of inappropriate interactions between councillors and the council staff were generally ignored."
The Daily Liberal called Mr McMahon to discuss the report. He hung up the phone once he became aware of the nature of the call.
He was also contacted by the Daily Liberal numerous times and asked to comment on the findings of his handling of matters, and the role of the internal ombudsman during his term at Dubbo Regional Council, but he did not respond.
The Daily Liberal put a series of questions toNSW Local Government Minister Shelley Hancock asking if she had seen the report and was concerned by the issues raised, particularly the conduct of Mr McMahon.
The newspaper also asked Ms Hancock if she was confident issues had been addressed appropriately and thatcode of conduct matters would be properly dealt with in the future.
A performance order was placed on Dubbo Regional Council, which has since expired in September. The Daily Liberal asked if the NSW government would intervene again - particularly in light of the allegations being aired on social media by mayor Cr Lawrence.
A spokesperson from Ms Hancock's office said she would not be commenting on the issue as the office was in caretaker mode.
However, a spokesperson for the Office of Local Government did respond noting they "do not comment publicly on matters it may or may not be investigating".
"The Office of Local Government is closely monitoring the situation at Dubbo Regional Council," the spokesperson said.
"Breaches of a council's code of conduct are to be dealt with in accordance with the Procedures for the Administration of the Model Code of Conduct for Local Councils in NSW."