A recording of a meeting with Wangaratta Council’s chief executive Doug Sharp and staff back in May reveals that the writing could well have been on the wall already, with staff told not to engage with maverick councillor Julian Fidge for any reason. The sacking of the entire council came just four months later.
THE moment Wangaratta Council was on the inevitable path to a historic sacking took place inside the city’s performing arts centre in early May.
That day former chief executive officer Doug Sharp spoke to staff at the height of a long-running feud with maverick councillor Julian Fidge.
In the drama-filled days beforehand, Local Government Minister Jeanette Powell had met with mayor Rozi Parisotto and signalled her intention to appoint an inspector to the troubled council, Cr Lisa McInerney quit and Mr Sharp collapsed at his office and was rushed to hospital.
This weekend marks the one-year anniversary of the election of a council that was sacked less than 12 months into office.
The Border Mail has obtained an audio recording of that meeting when the dramas surrounding Cr Fidge reached flashpoint, with 21 of 23 staff allegations of bullying substantiated after an independent probe.
Scroll down to listen to the audio
Mr Sharp stood before his staff and denied he had a heart attack, but said he would be undergoing further medical assessment once he left to go on extended leave from the position he had held since 2006.
He then turned his attention to the chief protagonist, Cr Fidge.
“We received a number of complaints around bullying and intimidation and let’s not mince words here, it was by staff against Cr Fidge,” Mr Sharp said.
“It’s a pretty sensitive situation and obviously it was a confidential type approach that we had to undertake.
“I can be held personally liable for the welfare of my staff and so I take it extremely seriously.”
Cr Fidge’s contact with staff was suddenly heavily restricted.
“No one other than the CEO is to have direct contact with Cr Fidge,” Mr Sharp said.
“If Cr Fidge is insistent you should be polite, but I reiterate the above, you should not engage him in any further conversation, if he is adamant you may simply hang up the phone or walk away.”
Cr Fidge could only attend the council chambers, councillors’ meeting room and tea room.
One staff member even asked if Cr Fidge could use a separate toilet rather than the public one to avoid contact.
Mr Sharp explained the role of municipal inspector Peter Stephenson and the reasons for him taking extended leave.
“It is important at this time that it be allowed to happen so that the (inspector) can take a bit of an objective view of the situation and for me not to be accused or seem in any way considered to be manipulating or doing something with that process,” he said.
“I think it is very important that process is seen to happen independently.”
Mr Sharp was asked by a staff member about the “non-engagement” ruling extending to all councillors.
“No, this is only to do with Cr Fidge and the advice we have back about his behaviour and what has been substantiated and the actions that have been put in place to try and mitigate the circumstances.”
Mr Sharp updated staff about senior staff members Ruth Tai, Andrew Close, Ray Park and Graham Nickless also going on stress-related leave. Neither they nor Mr Sharp have returned to the council.
Cr Fidge maintains he didn’t bully anyone and his desire to bring transparency to council operations put him on an inevitable collision course with Mr Sharp and others.
“It was such a culture shock for the mayor and senior officers to have someone who wouldn’t be stood over,” he said.
“We were undermined by former councillors, business people with vested interests and senior council officers at every turn.
“I don’t think any staff member could stand up in a court of law and prove they were bullied by myself or any other councillors.
“But the minister saw fit to dismiss the entire council based on those allegations.
“In the 10 months we were governing we accomplished more than previous councils in the last decade.
“It was a broad-based council and we had a much broader focus.
“For instance the action we took about the Wangaratta saleyards immediately resulted in an enormous boost for that business.”
Attempts to contact Mr Sharp for comment were unsuccessful.
Battle lines between Mr Sharp and his senior managers and the new-look council, including Cr Fidge were drawn soon after last year’s election.
Five councillors, including three former mayors, were booted from office and replaced by newcomers, Cr Fidge, Paul O’Brien and Noel Amery, who campaigned on the most contentious issue confronting council, the rural land strategy.
Residents living in rural areas revolted against being told what they could and couldn’t do with their own land and set about to change the make-up of council.
The newcomers had a strong grip on power when they supported Ms Parisotto to become mayor.
But, early on September 18 the council was no more.
A day later, Ms Parisotto was straight to the point.
“This will haunt us forever.”
Click play on the video below to hear an edited version of the meeting held with council staff. Please note that the volume will need to be turned up to hear the audio clearly.
(iPhone users go to video tab in menu)