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Barkly Regional Council accused of mismanagement as multiple staff leave 'toxic' workplace

A council in the remote Northern Territory outback has been rocked by a flood of resignations amid allegations of bullying and mismanagement.

The United Workers Union (UWU) said it was "deeply concerned by unprecedented levels of bullying, harassment, discrimination [and] high staff turnover" at Barkly Regional Council.

The council services the town of Tennant Creek and surrounding communities, 500 kilometres north of Alice Springs.

UWU NT secretary Erina Early said union members and their colleagues reported "significant distress and mental anguish about their treatment at the hands of senior officials within the council".

Barkly Regional Council Mayor Jeffrey McLaughlin and chief executive officer Emma Bradbury, who started in her role earlier this year, dismissed the complaints as the "venting" of a "small group of disgruntled ex-employees".

The ABC has been made aware of at least six resignations in recent months directly linked to the alleged behaviour of Ms Bradbury, as well as numerous staff on stress leave.

Cr McLaughlin has this week stepped aside from his role over unrelated charges by police.

Work environment 'toxic' says former community safety manager

David Lightowler is one of the ex-employees alleging misconduct at the council after he was sacked from his role as the BRC's regional manager for community safety earlier this month.

He said he intended to take his case to the Fair Work Commission (FWC) and described the work environment under the Mayor and current chief executive as "toxic".

Mr Lightowler said he had worked at the council for two and a half years and his earlier experience had been "relatively good".

But, he said, things changed from April this year when the "new CEO" came in with "lots of new ideas".

"After probably May, June, it became a very toxic work environment where there was, it seemed to be a bit of an agenda to target staff," he said.

"The council is the hub of the Barkly … when you've got so many positions vacant, it's going to have a flow-on effect … to the community."

It is understood the council has also lost its human resources manager, governance officer, Workplace Health and Safety officer, and director of corporate services in recent months, with a total of 17 roles at the council currently advertised.

Fears things would go 'terribly, terribly wrong'

Former BRC employee Justin Hankinson has spoken out about what he has also labelled a "toxic" environment at the council.

The former health and safety officer quit his job in May, feeling things at his workplace were "going to go terribly, terribly wrong". 

He described a meeting with the chief executive in the wake of an accident at the council depot in which he said he attempted to discuss the council's past safety practices.

Mr Hankinson said he felt "deliberately belittled" in the meeting and alleged that Ms Bradbury threatened disciplinary action against him if he continued to discuss past events. 

Ms Bradbury declined to comment on the meeting and said the BRC was committed to "providing a safe workplace for all employees".

Mr Hankinson also alleged Cr McLaughlin passed his email raising concerns about the chief executive onto Ms Bradbury herself, which multiple staff said prompted further mistreatment of another staff member named in the email.

Cr McLaughlin denied the allegation.

Handling of alleged sexual harassment under fire

Multiple council staff have expressed concerns to the ABC about the chief executive's handling of an alleged sexual harassment complaint.

Mr Hankinson alleged Ms Bradbury "demanded" the victim meet with the alleged perpetrator. 

Complaints viewed by the ABC have alleged Ms Bradbury took over the investigation of the claim from the council's human resources department.

The ABC understands the complainant declined the request and has since undertaken multiple periods of stress leave.

Ms Bradbury declined to comment on the case but said the council was "committed to working in the best interests of the community and our employees at all times".

Cr McLaughlin said he had worked "thoroughly" with the Department of Chief Minister and Cabinet and the Local Government Association of the Northern Territory, who have reviewed staff complaints.

Ms Bradbury said she could not share the reviews' outcomes. 

Worker with a disability fights council over role change

In documents seen by the ABC, the UWU commenced proceedings with the FWC in August after a long-term Indigenous employee was stood down without pay. 

The union said the employee, who the ABC has chosen not to name, lived for decades with a disability, and was forced to take long service leave after the council alleged he may be unable to perform his duties, after performing them without issue for more than 15 years. 

It is understood the council only returned him to work and restored his leave balance after the union commenced FWC proceedings, and that the employee is currently awaiting legal advice about making a complaint to the Northern Territory Anti-Discrimination Commission.

Ms Bradbury declined to comment on the matter but said she was "supportive of employees' rights to fair representation". 

Council at 'serious risk' of staff burnout

In a live phone interview with Stewart Brash on ABC Alice Springs local radio last week, in which the chief executive could be heard coaching him with his answers in the background, Cr McLaughlin rejected suggestions the council had problems with recruiting and retaining staff.

He said there was "no problem with staff morale" and that "as of this time last year, our staff retention is up by 0.6 per cent".

Cr McLaughlin also disputed a claim that three staff had resigned on September 9.

"I've just got a big 'no' from the CEO," he told the ABC.

Ms Bradbury admitted there "absolutely" were "challenges" around the number of vacancies among senior staff.

Council reports show staff numbers have dropped from 241 in October last year to 214 in August this year.

A June 2022 Corporate Services Directorate report warned: "If BRC is unable to fill key management positions, we are at risk of [not] meeting our operational requirements and will affect the service delivery in the council area. Council is also at serious risk of staff burnout."

Union raises administration concerns

UWU's Ms Early told the ABC the "apparent mismanagement we are currently seeing by council calls into question whether they are qualified to be working … as part of the Barkly regional deal".

"The union believes that if things continue without significant change, the Northern Territory government will have no choice but to place council into administration," she said. 

Ms Bradbury declined to comment on the union's claims, but both she and Cr McLaughlin insisted relations between the council and the union were positive.

Northern Territory Minister for Local Government Chansey Paech refused the ABC's requests for comments, saying: "It is inappropriate for the Minister for Local Government to comment on operational council matters."

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