By Raquel Mustillo
A COUNCIL meeting called to address code of conduct issues within Grant District Council was partly in response to claims staff members were “harassed” and in some cases “bullied, disrespected and unsupported” in interactions with mayor Richard Sage.
The recording, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, reveals a number of allegations relating to Mr Sage’s behaviour towards council staff, including “abusing” former chief executive officer David Singe and other employees.
Held in February 2019, the meeting was called to address code of conduct matters following a hazard report lodged with council regarding alleged behaviours towards staff.
After protracted efforts by The Border Watch for almost two years to access the recording, including two appeals to the State’s Ombudsman, Grant District Council publicly released the document last week.
During the two-hour meeting, former Councillor Jody Elliot – who resigned last year due to COVID-19 – told the chamber that staff members had been “publicly chastised” by Mr Sage.
“Elected members are receiving consistent feedback from a range of sources that staff at the council are feeling harassed and in some cases bullied, disrespected and unsupported by elected members in relation to their intersections with the mayor,” she said. “Sources claim that some staff are considering resignation or lodging complaints.”
Both elected members and staff raised concerns with the behaviour of the mayor towards council employees during the meeting, including an incident where Mr Sage accused the then executive assistant – who resigned from the position in December – of altering meeting minutes, despite not having evidence to back up the claim.
Councillor Barry Kuhl, who along with Cr Elliot and deputy mayor Gill Clayfield called the meeting, said Mr Sage’s treatment of staff while in council meetings had been “disgraceful”.
“To accuse her of altering minutes with no proof is just not on in my books,” he said.
“I went to the state of actually sending [the former executive assistant] flowers after the meeting the other week because I just felt that disappointed in the way she was treated.
“And it has got to change or I’ll be gone.
“I actually thought about not standing at the last election and right now I am deciding whether I resign or not because I’m sick of it.”
Cr Kuhl’s sentiments were echoed by Mount Gambier Regional Airport manager Ian Fritsch who said he was “greatly” upset with the mayor’s behaviour to the former executive assistant.
Mr Fritsch said staff had been attending council’s bi-weekly meetings to provide support to colleagues and mitigate against potential harassment.
“I wouldn’t like my wife to come to a meeting and be treated like that,” he said.
“I think that’s appalling.
“In the last few months, some of the older councillors would realise there’s a lot more of the council staff that turn up to council meetings and that wasn’t the norm.
“There’s a reason we all do that and it’s to support [the executive assistant]… or whoever the other person is so they are not left in here alone and don’t feel unsupported by their workmates.
“They don’t come to listen to you talk… they are here to support our work colleagues who don’t deserve to be treated how they are treated.”
Councillor Megan Dukalskis asked Mr Sage whether he had anything to say, to which he replied “I didn’t realise I was causing that much angst”.
Deputy mayor and meeting chair Gill Clayfield claimed Mr Sage had reduced a staff member to tears following stock thefts at the Mount Gambier and District Saleyards.
“I have been told you went to the saleyards and blew [the staff member] up,” she said.
When Mr Sage questioned what he had said to the staff member to upset them, Ms Clayfield replied “apparently he was in tears”.
Mr Sage said he was disappointed with the thefts, which he said had not been recorded on video because the machine had been unplugged.
He also said he was not aware of the thefts until he had read about it in the media.
“I agree with you Richard, we should have known,” Cr Clayfield said.
“But you still shouldn’t have gone out there to yell at [the staff member].”
Mr Singe told the chamber incidents involving the mayor also included “rude comments” to council’s economic development advisor while in the chamber and “attacking” and “abusing” the director of planning and environment.
“There are other episodes so I make the point as chief executive officer that this is not just about the executive assistant – everything abut that is true – but it’s not the end of the story by any means,” he said.
“The staff have met and the staff said they have had enough.
“They are not prepared to accept it individually or collectively.”
In response to a question about the communication breakdown with Mr Sage, Mr Singe acknowledged the importance of working in collaboration with the mayor but would not work together with “someone who abused me”.
“Why should I talk to anyone who goes far beyond the bounds?” Mr Singe said.
“I don’t trust you, and nor do the staff. “And they made it clear at the meeting on Tuesday they’ve had enough.”
Environmental Services director Leith McEvoy said the issues were long-standing and predated the election of the new council.
“It goes back to Graham Maxwell’s two months with us last year and back to Trevor Smart leaving us over a 12 month period,” he said. “Trevor didn’t really want to leave DC Grant, [but] Naracoorte came along at the right time and he knew there were issues between him and Richard.
“[Trevor] didn’t really involve the staff, Trevor probably kept it to himself a bit more so than say what David has, David is a bit more open about the circumstances.
“Trevor took a lot, I think, away with him and took it personally.”
At the meeting, which despite being open to the public appears to be intentionally held privately due to a number of references to the media and its coverage of the internal issues, councillors supported engaging an independent mediator and consultant to review the organisation.
Completed in April 2019, the review recommended Mr Sage’s access to council offices and officers be completely removed and backed prohibiting the mayor from meeting any council officer other than the chief executive officer on a one-on-one basis.
The 14-page review also recommended all public external communication by either the chief executive or mayor Sage to be reviewed and approved by the deputy mayor prior to its release. However, a leaked email has revealed a second cultural review will be undertaken by an independent human resources firm following staff concerns its recommendations were not fully actioned.