Rotorua Lakes Council made 12 people redundant in 2020, and one of those staff members says, in his view, the way it was carried out was “laughably unprofessional”.
Another person says they believe there is an escalating bullying culture at the council.
The council says the changes have been “cost-neutral”, are not due to Covid-19 and those made redundant had an opportunity to provide feedback directly to the council.
Payments for 13 redundancies - including one of three in 2019 - totalled nearly $500,000.
Confidential council documents obtained by Local Democracy Reporting reveal the 2020 restructure’s consultation was based on a number of factors, including Covid-19.
One of the 12 people made redundant in 2020, James Coutts, says he was “gobsmacked, disappointed [and] frustrated” by the redundancy and how it was handled.
Coutts was a senior collections arrears officer, part of the council’s rates collection service in the finance team.
He told Local Democracy Reporting he was invited to a meeting in September last year with the council’s finance controller and human resources advisor lead.
The invitation, sent about three hours before the meeting, did not state what it was about, Coutts says.
Sensing something awry, Coutts arranged for his wife, a lawyer, to attend the meeting with him.
He claims he was told rates debt collection was being moved into customer service, and he was being made redundant.
He claims he was advised he did not have the skills to continue in the team, and the council suggested he re-apply for a customer service position.
“All of a sudden, I’m not an accountant.”
Coutts says he offered to work within the customer service team while being retained on his salary “in an advisory capacity”.
Coutts says chief financial officer Thomas Colle was not at the meeting.
Coutts says he believed there would be no staff redundancies under Covid-19 alert levels, and when he raised this in the meeting, he claimed the finance controller - his boss - “scoffed" at him.
He had taken “a massive pay cut” to work at the council because he had wanted to work for his community, something Coutts claims his boss also scoffed at in the meeting.
“We were just treated like crap. It was really unprofessional. I’m still angry.”
He said he felt lucky because he had a good job with a good salary again, but the experience had been “really disheartening”.
“It was ‘immoral’ for them to take a pay cut but it was morally right for them to make me redundant.”
Rotorua Lakes Council chief executive Geoff Williams. Photo / File / Andrew Warner / Rotorua Daily Post.
On April 16 last year, council chief executive Geoff Williams, whose salary is $374,721, said pay cuts for the council’s executive team would be “immoral”.
On April 15 Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced she would take a 20 per cent pay cut for six months in solidarity with those affected financially by the pandemic.
Ardern, who said it was “about leadership” was joined by ministers and top public service executives, as well as then-National Party leader Simon Bridges.
Williams’ comment was one Coutts says had “pissed off” a number of staff at the council.
Coutts says in the 16 months he worked at the council he claims he had received no performance development or performance plans, which meant the redundancy came as “such a surprise”.
He says the council claimed in the meeting rates debt had never been in “such a bad position”.
“She was indirectly blaming me. But [rates debt] had also actually gone down.”
He asked if it was a “constructive dismissal or a genuine redundancy”, and he said he was told it was a redundancy.
“All I can do is laugh. It was such a laughably unprofessional environment.
“I never want to work for the council again after this.”
He says he believed the finance team management had “no understanding of people”.
Coutts believes restructures - both his and one in April 2019 - are “a failure of management to find a better way of working”.
In his final weeks at the council, Coutts had struggled in what he described as a “horrible” environment where managers would avoid eye contact with him.
“I would be sitting in the car each day having minor panic attacks.”
He says sometimes it was like “walking on eggshells around certain people”.
He says he believed management “just wanted me gone” because he asked questions and gave honest feedback.
“I loved working for the community in Rotorua and I was just gutted.
"I hope there that this is taken seriously and moving forward there that if people want to work at the council they go in feeling supported and wanting to be there as a long-term career.”
Another of the 12 council staff made redundant who spoke to Local Democracy Reporting wanted to remain anonymous, including not revealing their gender.
They say they were also invited to a meeting with management in September.
In it, they were told there would be a restructure of the finance team. They believed one of the reasons cited was the impacts of Covid-19.
“I was pretty shocked."
The person says they believed the way the redundancy was handled "wasn't overly sympathetic" and they didn't feel the council genuinely wanted to help those made redundant.
"It was just about them doing what they wanted to do. There was no caring involved," they claimed.
They said it added stress to an already stressful time, but wouldn't fault the timing if there had been, in their view, "genuine reasons" for the restructure.
"The timing seemed strange. Why wasn't it council-wide? If it was Covid, it should have been whole-of-organisation.
The person asked if there would be a position they could apply for in the restructured team but claimed "the immediate response was ‘no’”.
“It was quite blunt and there was no offer of retraining or redeployment explored despite that being included in the employment agreement".
They believed the restructure was pre-determined and the council had sought to gather people’s institutional knowledge before the restructure. They said that process appeared to ramp up during the consultation period.
"I think it was always going to happen."
In their opinion, a "bullying culture” had “multiplied" at the council in recent times.
“It’s lots of subtle things, like excluding people.”
They says, in their opinion, the finance manager was quite particular about who she talked to.
A council spokeswoman said 12 people had been made redundant at the council since April last year. Two of those people took a redundancy after declining redeployment opportunities, she said.
The spokeswoman confirmed there had been no pay increases for any staff in that time.
Rotorua Lakes Council chief executive Geoff Williams says, in a written statement via the council’s communication team, that staffing changes since April last year were “not made as a way to cut costs in response to Covid-19”.
“The demand for, and expectations of, council services and leadership in the community did not reduce as a result of Covid and staffing changes that have occurred have been due to operational departmental changes to meet current needs.”
He says redundancies were “never taken lightly” but reflected the organisation’s “ongoing evolution” and its responsibility to provide cost-effective and efficient services for the community.
In April last year, Williams told Local Democracy Reporting council staff were “key income earners in their families” and staffing changes at that time would be a “serious move that would have significant implications” for staff, their families and the wider community.
In the same statement, he says redundancies at that time would see “more locals without income and with reduced spending ability” that would have “ripple effects” into the local economy.
The council spokeswoman says Williams’ comments were in response to questions asking if redundancies - voluntary and otherwise - had been made as an immediate way to cut costs due to Covid-19, and “what [the] council’s general approach was regarding retention of staff at that time”.
Coutts says he believed Williams had “lied” about the redundancies not being due to Covid-19, as “we were told this was due to Covid in the meeting. They said, ‘due to Covid we’re having to make changes to streamline our processes’.”
Williams’ claim it was not related to Covid made him “really angry”.
Coutts says the redundancies were likely cost neutral as initial savings would offset the cost of redundancy packages, particularly for some staff who had been at the council for decades.
“I was giving my all into that job. It makes me feel like I was nothing, that I wasn’t valued by the council. It makes me feel they are not there for the people.”
Coutts says he believes Williams didn’t want to “admit they’re wrong or failing, or accept blame for anything”.
“No management has been made redundant.’’
He says in his opinion: “They’re just protecting their jobs. They’re genuinely just protecting themselves.”
In response to Coutts’ and the unnamed person’s comments, Williams says in March 2020 he informed staff the organisation was committed to their ongoing employment and that there were no plans for redundancies.
“That was in the context of preparing the organisation for lockdown and with news of staffing cuts being made elsewhere, for example, Auckland Council, as an immediate way to cut costs in response to Covid. Rotorua Lakes Council did not do that.
“Changes made to the Finance and Business Performance area in April 2019 and in September 2020, and to the Sir Howard Morrison Performing Arts Centre team in October 2020, were made to ensure the ongoing efficient and effective management of the organisation. These changes were not about cost-cutting.
“It is disappointing Mr Coutts and the unnamed person who has commented did not take the opportunity to make these allegations through the systems available to them both during and after the restructure process.”
A council spokeswoman says three people were made redundant from the council’s finance team in April 2019.
Payments for eight redundancies in Finance and Business Support, including one from 2019, totalled $438,305.57, she said.
Local Democracy Reporting also asked the council when discussions began regarding the 12 redundancies and of the redundancies, how long the longest-serving person had been with the organisation.
Local Democracy Reporting has also obtained internal documents revealing Covid-19 was cited as one of the reasons for the restructure consultation.
In a confidential PowerPoint presentation titled “Consultation outcome communication - finance and business performance” dated October 2020, one slide stated:
“The rationale for this consultation was based on a number of factors that have been evolving for some time.
“One of these factors included Covid-19 - Rotorua Lakes Council like many organisations has been impacted”.
Another slide stated: “Covid-19 impact has reduced transaction support and is driving a change in the nature of customers engagement toward online interactions”.
Public Service Association national secretary Erin Polaczuk said the union “strongly opposed” the restructure.
“We remain convinced it was a bad idea.
“Skilled council workers were made redundant, which is a difficult experience at the best of times, and they took a lot of institutional experience with them on their way out.
“These were staff who built relationships throughout the community over the years. When ratepayers are in arrears, it’s an inherently stressful experience approaching the council to try and resolve it.”
Arrears officers handled arrears cases with “sensitivity and dignity”, and had received “consistently positive feedback” for their work.
“Council staff work hard every day to provide essential community services, and in return, they should reasonably expect to feel supported, valued and respected by their employer.”
Rotorua Lakes Council chief financial officer Thomas Colle. Photo / File / Andrew Warner / Rotorua Daily Post.
In response to Polaczuk’s comments, council chief financial officer Thomas Colle says he's pleased with the operational changes implemented in November.
He says those changes have “seen improvements in the process in general, including timeliness and debt recovery”.
Rotorua mayor Steve Chadwick. Photo / File / Andrew Warner / Rotorua Daily Post.
Rotorua mayor Steve Chadwick was asked her view on redundancies in the Covid-19 environment, whether she supported them and whether she viewed them necessary or if they could have been avoided.
In a statement via the council communications team, Chadwick says it's the role of the chief executive to manage the organisation and as mayor she did not get involved in staffing changes.
“I am informed and assured that any changes made are deemed necessary and that any redundancy processes are conducted in the proper manner.”