5 August 2022

Wakefield Park’s upheaval throws new chief into fast lane

| John Thistleton
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Goulburn Mulwaree Council chief executive officer Aaron Johansson with the council’s business manager human resources Elise Jackson. Photo: Goulburn Mulwaree Council.

You react quickly on and off the track at Goulburn motor racing circuit Wakefield Park, as Aaron Johansson discovered last month.

The NSW Land and Environment Court’s decision to grant fewer race days to Wakefield Park landed in the first working week of Goulburn Mulwaree Council’s new chief executive.

“I learned an awful lot about Wakefield Park in a very short time,” Mr Johansson said. “It was something we as an organisation were not expecting – the court’s decision was significantly harsher than the conditions the council had in granting consent back in 2021,” he said.

Previously the council was defending those consent conditions. Now it’s working alongside owners Benalla Auto Group to keep Wakefield Park financially viable. The council believes viability means so much to Goulburn’s economy it’s advocating strongly to the NSW Government and shadow government to potentially change the law.

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This potentially would allow Wakefield Park to be included in the Motor Vehicle Special Events Act which Bathurst and Newcastle have used for the V8 super cars.

This would mean larger events, for example the four-day super bikes could be allowed, with court conditions not being applied.

“So the core business they have had over the years continues to come to Goulburn and everyone wins from those large events for that short period of time,” Mr Johansson said. “It is finding the balance between Wakefield, land owners and legislation.”

Before winning the chief executive’s position, Mr Johansson’s local government career rounded a financial hurdle and hit top gear at Charters Towers. In 2017, he became responsible for an area the size of Tasmania and a council the Queensland Audit Office deemed unsustainable. It was on course to run out of money.

So he rolled up his sleeves and Charters Towers became the only council in Queensland to upgrade to a sustainable category for 2020/21. He said that it was a team effort over three years.

A chartered accountant, Mr Johansson’s comfort zone lies in numbers. While overcoming his second bout of Covid-19 he has zeroed in on Goulburn Mulwaree Council’s finances.

“I think at the moment council is in a – I won’t say a strong position – we are in a good position in relation to where we sit,” he said. “When it comes to the longer term of our financial sustainability in particular, we will need to go back to basic services and make sure we do those well.

“The council over the last period has been quite fortunate in securing grants and some of the wonderful facilities like the Aquatic Centre and Goulburn Performing Arts Centre, but we also do need to look at where our core infrastructure is and how we can continue to serve the community,” he said.

That infrastructure and the roads network in particular, similar to Charters Towers’ in 2017-2021, is flood damaged. There’s a backlog of repair work that will take time to complete. Meanwhile, re-building costs have risen in the realm of 20 per cent over the past 12 months, and materials like cement piping are either unavailable or scarce.

Today he is face-to-face with as many of council’s 317 full-time workforce, and about 70 part-timers as possible, getting to know them, talking to them about his values, including courage and, like every other employer in Australia and around the world, scrambling to find qualified people. Local government everywhere need technical staff, planners, quality civil engineers, and finance professionals.

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He is looking at the planning department’s resources with director Scott Martin, (he wants home-building accelerated) and stood in a 30-knot breeze at the Resource Recovery Centre’s tip face in front of outdoor staff sharing his plan for his first 100 days.

“I have been really clear with the staff we are not looking at any major restructures or anything like that which have happened here in the past when a new general manager has come in,” he said. “But we may need to re-align some of the positions so reporting is more efficient and we get better outcomes for community.”

“If we can build and grow our staff and serve the needs of community, I prefer that over contracting out and that’s just been a general philosophy of mine. In a tighter labor market though, it may be difficult to get people,” he said.

Before local government Mr Johansson worked in mining, education and financial services management roles. As Goulburn Mulwaree’s new chief executive he is coming to grips with how the council works and issues facing Goulburn and surrounding communities. “I will came back in December with a plan for the council to move forward in the best way we can,” he said.

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