The Jenga block that helped tip the City of Perth into suspension sooner rather than later arrived in the email inbox of acting chief executive Robert Mianich last Saturday afternoon.
Signed by five councillors, the email requested a special council meeting to vote on a change of policy to give the council more power to choose an acting chief executive.
The proposal was more than theoretical: with chief executive Martin Mileham on stress leave it would likely mean the removal of Mr Mianich and the appointment of economic development and activation director Annaliese Battista in his place.
To the councillors behind it — Deputy Lord Mayor Jemma Green and councillors Steve Hasluck, Reece Harley, James Limnios and Lexi Barton — it made sense for council, not a chief executive on stress leave, to appoint his replacement.
To Lord Mayor Lisa Scaffidi it was an “unprecedented” breach of procedure. Two days later, Mr Mianich also took stress leave and senior staff took the extraordinary step of activating the city’s crisis management plan — an action typically reserved for fire, flood or prolonged loss of power, IT or phone services — and calling for the meeting to be postponed.
The Department of Local Government was already investigating in the wake of Mr Mileham’s allegations of an unsafe workplace but the drumbeats calling for Local Government Minister David Templeman to step in were growing louder. Within a day he signalled the council would be suspended.
The events of the past week have played out a little like a car crash: fast, chaotic and noisy. But the real crash has been playing out for years in slow motion, starting at least as far back as 2015, when allegations about Ms Scaffidi’s acceptance of travel and gifts were first aired.
“The events of the past week have played out a little like a car crash.”
Ms Scaffidi’s 19 confirmed breaches of the Local Government Act were not responsible for Mr Templeman’s decision to suspend the council. However, the drawn-out scandal did create the conditions that led to a bitterly divided council, tarnished the city’s reputation and ultimately eroded Ms Scaffidi’s power base.
In the course of three years, Cr Harley went from being a lone voice critiquing what he saw as a damaging culture of entitlement and pushing for transparency to forming an at-times uneasy alliance with Ms Scaffidi’s one-time ally Cr Limnios and Cr Green.
The surprise departure of chief executive Gary Stevenson in January 2016 with 18 months still on his contract and the subsequent appointment of planning director Mr Mileham was also a key moment in understanding the events of this week. Both decisions initially had unanimous council support, but when the time came to make Mr Mileham’s appointment permanent councillors aligned against Ms Scaffidi had their concerns and opposed it.
Throughout last year there were rumours of low staff morale and complaints not being acted on. Those sentiments were borne out in a staff survey in September 2017 which found half of employees did not have faith that complaints would be dealt with appropriately and confidentiality.
Perth City councillors Lexi Barton, Lily Chen, James Limnios, Jemma Green, Reece Harley and Steve Hasluck after a meeting with local government minster David Templeman.Picture: Nic Ellis/The West Australian
In the October elections Ms Scaffidi lost two close allies and the election of Cr Hasluck and Cr Barton confirmed a new council dynamic in which Ms Scaffidi no longer held the balance of power.
By then, as the city revealed this week, Mr Mileham had been raising concerns about elected member behaviour with WorkSafe. The nature of the complaints is unknown. However, a city spokesman told The Weekend West it received no bullying complaints made by or about elected members in 2016 or 2017 and just three substantiated complaints involving staff.
In November, a $25,000 legal probe was put in motion to investigate what turned out to be a report which did not constitute grounds for misconduct relating to Mr Mileham and Ms Scaffidi.
Ten days after learning of the probe and the day before a meeting of the CEO performance review committee, Mr Mileham went on sick leave. He would be followed by Mr Mianich, planning and development director Erica Barrenger and, yesterday, community and commercial services director Rebecca Moore.
There are few winners to emerge out of the implosion of the Perth council. If there is any silver lining for ratepayers it may be that the appointment of a panel of inquiry should ensure the full story of what happened at the city is laid bare.