Central Goldfields Shire begins rebuild after council sacked by the state government

Noel Harvey, the chairperson of a group of three long-term administrators brought in by the state government after it sacked the Central Goldfields Shire.
Noel Harvey, the chairperson of a group of three long-term administrators brought in by the state government after it sacked the Central Goldfields Shire.

Unelected and under pressure, the unofficial ‘mayor’ of Central Goldfields Shire is gradually picking up the pieces of a fractious regime that preceded him. 

Noel Harvey is the chairperson of a group of three long-term administrators brought in by the state government after it sacked the Central Goldfields Shire council in August. 

The position is not foreign to Mr Harvey, a commissioner at the Hepburn Shire during the amalgamation era of the Kennett government, but, by his own admission, it’s a conflicting one. 

“I’m democratic at heart and passionate about representing the community,” he said, reflecting on the oddity of three handpicked administrators voting on decisions in the council chamber with little debate.

Mr Harvey, a former mayor and councillor for Kyneton and the Macedon Ranges Shire, said the lack of debate allowed administrators the opportunity to explain the decisions to the public.

“The minister (former local government minister Natalie Hutchins) made it very clear to us - we are the council even though we have the title of administrators.

“I'm acting as if I'm the mayor as an elected representative. It's a little bit strange because we aren't going to stand for election but it’s also quite liberating because we can make those decisions that need to be made without worrying about popularity.”

“If we do our job well i firmly believe the community will feel they are getting good representation, even if it's not democratically-appointed representation.

“Democracy not served them (ratepayers) well over there, one of the most needy communities in the state has been poorly served by democracy in this instance.”

Appointed by the state government but employed by the Central Goldfields Shire, the three administrators, which includes Hugh Delahunty and Karen Douglas, are working to change the culture of an organisation, described as lacking an appetite for reform by former local government minister Natalie Hutchins.

All seven councillors were sacked after an investigation by the Local Government Investigations and Compliance Inspectorate.

The shire’s former CEO Mark Johnston, who resigned in August, is facing 67 criminal charges relating to obtaining financial advantage by deception, and five charges of false accounting for alleged misuse of a corporate credit card.

Rebuilding trust

I'm acting as if I'm the mayor as an elected representative. It's a little bit strange because we aren't going to stand for election but it’s also quite liberating because we can make those decisions that need to be made without worrying about popularity.

Noel Harvey, Central Goldfields Shire administrators chairperson

With community confidence in and trust of the shire at its lowest point, Mr Harvey has taken on the role of a travelling political salesman of sorts, door knocking, hand shaking and offering an ear for those to air their grievances.

And the reaction of the ratepayers to their appointment has surprised Mr Harvey. 

“I expected much more angst that there's been,” he said.

“I’m amazed at how positive it has been.”

But Mr Harvey and his colleagues are aware it will take more than a few consoling words to regain that confidence. 

“Fixing the organisation is straightforward, anybody can do that it. You get the right people in the right places. But engaging the community and empowering them to get involved in the decision making of the council is that hard part,” he said.

“We're not there to build monuments, we're not there to leave a huge legacy, but we are there to leave a solid community that's focused on it's future and feels it has some control over the future, whereas at the moment they feel totally disenfranchised and not engaged at all.”

Transparency the key

The council’s organisational structure has changed, but no one has been shown the door, according to Mr Harvey.

Three directors now oversee human services, engineering and infrastructure and finance.

Additionally a new chief executive officer, Lucy Roffey, will start next week.

Ms Roffey, the current chief executive officer of Buloke Shire, will bring  a unique mix of financial, corporate and local government experience to the role, the shire said.

Open and transparent were words repeated a number of times by Mr Harvey, a subtle reference to previous council decisions, namely requesting the Country Fire Authority conduct a controlled burn a pile of rubbish on a Carisbrook property that was later found to contain asbestos.

The administrators will serve until the 2020 council elections.

TASK AHEAD: A group of administrators are beginning to rebuild Central Goldfields Shire after the state government sacked its council in August. Picture: NONI HYETT

TASK AHEAD: A group of administrators are beginning to rebuild Central Goldfields Shire after the state government sacked its council in August. Picture: NONI HYETT

Administrators keen to move on

The administrators were keen to focus on how they could improve the community going forward, Mr Harvey said.

“I would hope we will be remembered for the work we do in rebuilding community confidence,” he said.

“I went into this understanding there is going to be people that don't like the decisions we make, but if the broad community says after the three years we’re in a better place than when we started then I'm satisfied.”

Shire riddled with social problems

Above average unemployment, “extraordinarily high” levels of youth suicide and a disaffected youth are some of the social problems hindering the development in the Central Goldfields Shire.

And while some of these issues are enduring ones, an administrator of the shire believes it’s incumbent on himself and his team to at least try and resolve some of the problems.

According to recent Australian Bureau of Statistics census data, unemployment in the region was at 8.9 per cent, compared with the Victorian average of 6.9 per cent.

The data also showed 38.2 per cent of households had a weekly income of less than $650 – 18 per cent higher than the national average.

“The region is economically depressed, they’ve lost a lot of manufacturing and struggled to create employment opportunities,” the shire’s chief administrator Noel Harvey said.

“Millions of dollars have been poured into that town (Maryborough) to support it over the years, no one has ever asked the question - is it working?

“The council hasn't had an effective economic development function.”

Food manufacturing and the emergence of non-traditional industries could help the town emerge from its economic slumber, Mr Harvey said, adding the town could take advantage of opportunities stemming from the potential upgrades to intersecting train lines as part of a $1.42 billion regional rail package.

GoGoldfields, the social arm of the council, has a number of action groups and programs aimed at addressing complex social issues in the region by improving outcomes for children, youth and families.

It’s hoped engaging youngsters on a social level will eventually help fill a leadership vacuum identified by the state government. 

In dismissing the council in August, the state government said will provide $150,000 over three years to fund a program that will target future leaders in Central Goldfields. 

It also asked the Loddon Campaspe Regional Partnership to hold a mini regional assembly in the area, to help build a more resilient community.

“There's an opportunity there. I’ve had new faces already say to me they might consider running for council in a few years time,” Mr Harvey said.