Interference amongst suspended councillors, lack of leadership and inexperience in dealing with large-scale disasters are some of the findings from a report into Council’s response to the 2019/20 Black Summer bushfires.
Wingecarribee Shire Council’s Interim Administrator Viv May said the findings painted a sobering picture.
“Council’s response was clearly not good enough and the organisation could have served the community better,” he said.
Mr May conceded the size and scale of the bushfires were unprecedented and acknowledged that Council was not the lead combat agency.
“However, this report demonstrates that Council and Local Government in general need to acknowledge that they are still the first and most important port of call for their respective communities,” he said. “We have to better develop our skills in responding to and recovering from such natural disasters.”
The report found that Council’s Executive team did not have a solid understanding of emergency management.
“Emergency Management Plans either lacked content or were non-existent in places,” Mr May said.
The Interim Administrator was even more scathing of the involvement of suspended councillors.
“Even during the height of the bushfires some councillors seemed hell-bent on petty political point-scoring,” he said.
“Instead of working cohesively together for the betterment of the community, several councillors continued their in-fighting and personal attacks in the press and public.
“It’s then not unsurprising that the report found that leadership was at times hindered due to the strained relationship between councillors and senior management.”
The report found incidents where communication was hampered by several councillors offering assistance and making decisions on behalf of Council when they had no authority to do so.
“It’s important to acknowledge that this report is not all critical,” Mr May added. “Indeed, many Council staff went above and beyond and should be rightfully acknowledged for their efforts.”
“This is particularly commendable considering most staff did not have any formal emergency management, mental health or empathy training to help deal with such a crisis.”
“The report concludes that several factors contributed to Council’s lack of direction both during and after the bush fires,” Mr May said. “It’s therefore imperative that Council and the broader community learn from these findings to ensure the same mistakes are not repeated.”
“It’s inevitable that natural disasters will continue to impact the Shire in years to come and only if Council and the community work together will community resilience be improved.”
The report makes a total of 44 Recommendations which are to be forwarded to the General Manager for formal response.
“I will be recommending that an external person or new senior staff member take carriage of these Recommendations as some may warrant further interrogation,” Mr May said. “Because if the suspended Council were returned I doubt they would have the capacity to deal with the matter either professionally or compassionately.”
The independent review into the 2019/20 bushfires was undertaken by Mr Dave Owens from Risk-e Business Consultants. Mr Owens is a former Deputy Commissioner of the NSW Police Force and was formerly involved in the NSW Government’s Independent Bushfire Inquiry.
“In closing I would like to thank everyone who contributed to this review and on behalf of Council I thank Mr Owens for shining a light on these horrific bushfires.”