30 June 2020

Bega Valley mayor hits back at suggestions that GM has lost council's confidence

| Genevieve Jacobs
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Exterior of Bega Valley Shire Council building.

Bega Valley Shire Council has denied suggestions it has lost confidence in general manager Leanne Barnes. Photo: File.

Bega Valley Shire Council Mayor Sharon Tapscott has denied suggestions general manager Leanne Barnes has lost the confidence of council, characterising them as “grossly inaccurate” after the June council meeting.

Ms Barnes’s performance was assessed at the halfway mark of her current three-year contract. Reports made in closed session indicated that while her performance met and exceeded expectations in a number of areas, that was not the case with financial management, which was identified as an area for improvement.

However, Mayor Tapscott said reports Ms Barnes had lost the confidence of council were untrue and “deeply unfair”.

The performance review included six areas where Ms Barnes “exceeded expectations” and 10 where she received a rating of “meets expectations”.

According to the review, Ms Barnes is “performing more than satisfactorily and the councillors are appreciative of her commitment and dedication to the organisation and the Bega Valley community”.

However, the performance review committee noted she “did not meet expectations in the area of finance”.

Mayor Tapscott said there had never been any intention to censure Ms Barnes on that score.

“Clearly financial reporting has been identified as an area of improvement, an area Leanne acknowledges, but to turn the assessment result into an allegation of a motion of non-confidence is deeply unfair,” she said.

“Minor shortcomings in financial management and reporting were flagged and we have commenced a plan to address those areas with the GM.”

Mayor Tapscott noted that the current climate is a fraught one given the year of disasters such as bushfires and COVID-19, and the Eden-Monaro by-election on 4 July, describing the mood in the local community as “highly charged, highly emotional and very complex”.

The Bega Valley Shire Residents & Ratepayers Association has levelled a series of allegations at Bega Valley Shire Council’s financial management for some time, describing Ms Barnes’s performance review as “damning with faint praise”.

The association alleges that council has failed to adequately explain the circumstances leading to its 2018-2019 financial performance, including a full-year net operating deficit of almost $10 million and a net operating deficit in its General Fund of $14.1 million, and the rationale for the Special Rate Variation (SRV) to underwrite the Bega Valley Shire’s public swimming pools, which was eventually scrapped in January.

The intention for the latter had been to cover the ongoing operating and capital upgrade costs associated with the existing six public swimming pools across the shire, and the decision not to adopt it means operating costs for the pools will be funded from council’s General Fund.

The association had proposed a rates strike over the SRV issue, although Ms Barnes said at the time that unpaid rates were a liability that sat with the title of a parcel of land, accruing at six per cent daily interest.

The eventual motion moved by councillors Liz Seckold and Jo Dodds regarding Ms Barnes’s performance was:

1. That it be noted in the opinion of the Performance Review Committee, the general manager, Leanne Barnes, is performing more than satisfactorily and the councillors are appreciative of her commitment and dedication to the organisation and the Bega Valley community.

2. That it be noted in the opinion of the Performance Review Committee, the general manager, Leanne Barnes, did not meet expectations in the area of finance.

3. That for the performance review period, the major projects and actions outlined in this report be endorsed as the general manager’s priorities for 2020-2021.

Councillors Ms Seckold, Ms Dodds, Robyn Bain, Cathy Griff, Mitchell Nadin and Mayor Tapscott voted in favour of the motion. Councillors Russell Fitzpatrick and Tony Allen abstained, while former Mayor Kristy McBain was absent.

“We need good people with skill and heart around the table and Ms Barnes has that in bucket loads,” said Mayor Tapscott. “I stand with her yesterday, today and tomorrow.

“The real story is the GM’s commitment and dedication to council and the Bega Valley community. That has been evident in no greater way than her leadership and response to our rolling natural disasters starting with the East Coast Low of 2016.”

The minutes and video recording of the council meeting are available on the Bega Valley Shire Council’s website.

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