Wollondilly Council boss refuses to release findings of a report into alleged workplace bullying culture

David 'Harry' Wilson (inset) with Wollondilly Council building.
David 'Harry' Wilson (inset) with Wollondilly Council building.

The majority of staff at Wollondilly Council are set to take industrial action if the findings and recommendations of a report into an alleged culture of bullying and harassment at the council are not made public by the end of the week.

Council chief executive officer Luke Johnson is refusing to reveal any of the contents of a recently completed workplace investigation prepared by Brooke Pendlebury of Pendlebury Workplace Law.

Mr Johnson ordered the report following the suicide of council staff member David ‘Harry’ Wilson in June.

In the decade before his death at 61, Mr Wilson, of Bargo, had lodged several complaints about bullying and harassment at work.

Mayor Judith Hannan told the Advertiser this afternoon that she had not seen the report which was delivered to Mr Johnson last week.

She is meeting with councillors tonight to discuss the chief executive’s refusal to allow herself or councillors to access and read the report.

Wollondilly Council chief executive officer Luke Johnson

Wollondilly Council chief executive officer Luke Johnson

United Services Union spokesman Rudi Oppitz met with staff at an on-site union meeting this morning.

Staff voted to support a motion demanding Mr Johnson provide a full copy of the report to the union.

They also called on him to provide staff with a copy of the findings and recommendations, along with an explanation of how Ms Pendlebury reached her conclusions.

“We want this information by close of business on Friday,” Mr Oppitz said.

“If it’s not provided, we’ll meet again on Wednesday morning to determine what our next steps are.

“The vast majority of council staff are union members and I expect they’ll vote to take some form of industrial action.”

Mr Johnson released a statement this afternoon which listed several reasons why he had chosen to keep the report confidential.

His statement said:

Ms Pendlebury’s report required that she engage in a series of confidential discussions with Council personnel. I accept that unless Ms Pendlebury was able to engage in such confidential discussions, and her report kept confidential then that would:

  • prejudice the opportunity for the supply to the Council of confidential information that would facilitate the effective exercise of the Council’s functions;
  • reveal a deliberation or consultation conducted, or an opinion, advice or recommendation given, in such a way as to prejudice a deliberative process of the Council;
  • prejudice the effective exercise by the Council of its functions;
  • likely found an action against the Council for breach of confidence or otherwise result in the disclosure of information provided to Ms Pendlebury, on behalf of the Council, in confidence, and;
  • prejudice the conduct, effectiveness or integrity of an investigation conducted or on behalf of the Council by revealing its purpose, conduct or results.

Mr Johnson’s statement also condemned the Wollondilly Whingers Facebook page, saying council staff had been “subject to vicious and extremely hurtful comments posted on the social media platform”.

He said he had referred to police a number of comments posted to the page and stated he would protect staff “from the disgraceful and baseless attacks upon their integrity and professional reputations by or from the Wollondilly Whingers platform”.

Full statement from Wollondilly chief executive Luke Johnson:

  1. As many people may know, in May of this year one of our valued workers, Mr David (also known as Harry) Wilson took his life. I determined, in accordance with my responsibilities for the Council staff, as well as for the day to day management of the Council, that there should be a thorough investigation in relation to a range of workplace issues at the Council.
  2. The Council’s then Acting General Manager, Ally Dench , and Council’s Disclosure Coordinator, Lynette Kofod, established the grounds of reference for that investigation.
  3. Brooke Pendlebury of Pendlebury Workplace Law was appointed to conduct the investigation. The tasks assigned to her included a peer review of the adequacy of the report conducted by Mr Phil O’Brien of Australian Workplace Training and Investigation into a complaint made by Mr Wilson about two of the Council’s Managers. Mr O’Brien had determined that the allegations contained in Mr Wilson’s complaints could not be substantiated.
  4. The Council takes very seriously its obligations to provide a safe place of work and to ensure compliance with its obligations under the Work Health and Safety Act and under the Council’s Code of Conduct. Bullying, harassment and intimidation will not be tolerated.
  5. Ms Pendlebury’s report required that she engage in a series of confidential discussions with Council personnel. I accept that unless Ms Pendlebury was able to engage in such confidential discussions, and her report kept confidential then that would:
  • prejudice the opportunity for the supply to the Council of confidential information that would facilitate the effective exercise of the Council’s functions;
  • reveal a deliberation or consultation conducted, or an opinion, advice or recommendation given, in such a way as to prejudice a deliberative process of the Council;
  • prejudice the effective exercise by the Council of its functions;
  • likely found an action against the Council for breach of confidence or otherwise result in the disclosure of information provided to Ms Pendlebury, on behalf of the Council, in confidence, and;
  • prejudice the conduct, effectiveness or integrity of an investigation conducted or on behalf of the Council by revealing its purpose, conduct or results.
  1. Accordingly I will retain Ms Pendlebury’s report on a confidential bases and will not distribute her report. For the same reasons identified in paragraph 5, I have also determined that Mr O’Brien’s report should be kept confidential. I have conferred with the Office of Local Government which has agreed with me that Ms Pendlebury’s report is confidential and that I am not required to disclose that report to any other person. Nevertheless I have closely examined Ms Pendlebury’s report and recommendations and where necessary that report and those recommendations will be acted upon, consistent with my responsibilities referred to in paragraph 1 above.
  2. Having considered Ms Pendlebury’s report, and its various findings and recommendations, I am confidently able to say to you that:(
  • (i) That report is thorough and responds, in an uncompromising fashion, to its terms of reference.
  • (ii) There are no reasons to doubt the findings made and conclusions reached by Mr O’Brien in his report.
  • (iii) There is continuing and improving culture of acceptable and respectful workplace behaviour within the Council, brought about by improved and more practically focused training for all staff on a range of workplace issues including the requirement upon all staff to exhibit respectful behaviour to other staff members and the general public.
  • (iv) The number of workplace complaints about unacceptable behaviour has dropped significantly over the last several years.
  • (v) The Council has extensive, clear and comprehensive policies, procedures and codes dealing with (and seeking to prevent) bullying and harassment.
  • (vi) The Council does not have a culture of nor problem with bullying in the organisation. Bullying, intimidation and harassment by any person will not be tolerated.
  • (vii) We all must build on the Council’s vision of a resilient, safe and supported workplace that provides respectful, efficient and effective services for our customers now and for future generations; and work together to make sure that our workplace is and remains a good and desirable place to work thereby promoting stability within the workforce and attracting high quality candidates for employment.
  • (viii) It is regrettable that Mr Justin Nyholm has left the organisation. He was a fine manager and I did not seek his departure.
  • (ix) No organisation is perfect and I accept that I must, and we all must, strive to make improvements where we can. You have my commitment that the Council will support all of us when we seek to make Wollondilly Shire Council not just a good, but a better place to work.
  • (x) There are no grounds to support any allegation that Council’s indoor and outdoor staff are treated or judged according to different standards of behaviour.
  • (xi) Many of our staff have been subject to vicious and extremely hurtful comments posted on the social media platform, Wollondilly Whingers. Many of the comments directed at Council staff comprise bullying, harassment and intimidation of the cruellest and crudest nature. A number of our staff have, as a result, feared for their own safety or have felt humiliated and offended.
  • (xii) I have a zero tolerance for any form of bullying from within or outside of the Council. I have referred a number of comments published on the Wollondilly Whingers platform, to the Police and I will take such measures as may be necessary to protect Council staff from the disgraceful and baseless attacks upon their integrity and professional reputations by or from the Wollondilly Whingers platform.
  • (xiii) The Councillors and staff should not give any oxygen to the Wollondilly Whingers platform. Any staff engaging in the type of unacceptable comments that we have seen posted on the Wollondilly Whingers platform, whether through that medium or elsewhere, will face disciplinary action. Nor will I allow any staff to access that platform from the workplace or through the use of Council provided computers, iPhones and the like.
  • (xiv) Whilst I cannot direct Councillors to not access the Wollondilly Whingers platform, I will take such steps that may be necessary through, for example, additional training, to alert them to the serious harm caused too many persons within this organisation by and as a result of the Wollondilly Whingers platform.

Luke Johnson

Chief Executive Officer