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The general manager of a council east of Melbourne has resigned.

Latrobe City Council general manager quits after safety concerns stemming from August meeting

August 23, 2022

ABC News / by Margaret Paul

Wed 6 Apr 2022

The general manager of a council east of Melbourne has resigned, claiming it had become an unsafe work environment in the wake of a fiery meeting in August last year.

Key points:

  • Latrobe City Council accepted a report making a finding of misconduct against councillor Melissa Ferguson
  • A general manager resigned, saying the council was an “unsafe work environment”
  • The state government is reviewing the culture in local governments

The Latrobe City Council accepted the findings of an independent panel that found councillor Melissa Ferguson made abusive and threatening statements in a council meeting, during a discussion about bushfire recovery funds.

During the meeting, Ms Ferguson made abusive statements towards council staff, making accusations about “appropriation of funds, fraud and missing money”, the report found.

The meeting was not broadcast live because of a technical glitch, and later posted to YouTube with parts redacted on legal advice.

“I believe that my constituents who were affected by bushfire have been dudded, and I would like to see more about this and where this money went,” Ms Ferguson told the meeting, in a section that is still available online.

Claims of ‘unsafe work environment’

The council’s former general manager, Suzanne Miller, told the panel she resigned as a direct result of that and other interactions with Ms Ferguson, because she believed she could “no longer ensure the safety of relevant council staff in performing their roles”.

She told the panel there had been a “culmination of events over a long period of time,” including ongoing bullying.

“Ms Miller told the panel her staff were fearful of councillors, and that this fear was indicative of an unsafe work environment,” the report found.

The panel made a finding of misconduct against Ms Ferguson, but did not substantiate allegations of bullying.

Another councillor ‘intimidated’

The report noted another councillor, Tracie Lund, became teary while giving evidence, describing “the struggles she continues to face” after a separate councillor briefing in 2021 involving Ms Ferguson.

“The exchange left her feeling unsafe and vulnerable, so much so that she requested all briefing meetings be recorded moving forward,” the report found.

Ms Lund also told the panel she felt “unsafe and reluctant to speak up or participate in any meaningful way for fear of being attacked or shut down”.

She told the panel she felt intimidated by Ms Ferguson, culminating in the behaviour at the August meeting, which she described as “a planned attack, with a barrage of planned accusations that were unwarranted.”

In a statement on social media, Ms Lund said councillors should be community role models.

“I believe there should be zero tolerance of poor behaviour that does not support the emotional and psychological safety of the people working in the room and around the table,” she said.

“I will never be a bystander to behaviour like that.”

Panel concerned about ‘lack of awareness’

The report found Ms Ferguson was not aware of the impact of her actions until the matter came before the panel, and that she “will try her best to move forward and develop good relationships with people”.

“She herself feels unsure and unsafe and believes her fellow councillors and Council Officers do not want to get to know her as a person,” the report found.

The panel directed Ms Ferguson to attend training around council procedures and policies.

In a statement, Latrobe City Council Mayor Kellie O’Callaghan said the community had put a lot of trust in councillors.

“I am confident that all councillors will work together effectively into the future and will support councillor Ferguson,” Ms O’Callaghan said.

Ms Ferguson was first elected in 2020.

In a statement, she declined to comment.

“Cr Ferguson is considering the ramifications of the report, including the issue of whether it ought be the subject of a review by the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal, and it would therefore be inappropriate to comment at this stage,” the statement said.

The State Government is conducting a review into culture in local government, including poor councillor behaviour and training.

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