Sunshine Coast Council CEO Michael Whittaker (left) shakes hands with Mayor Mark Jamieson after his appointment to a five-year term in 2015. The council quietly extended Mr Whittaker's contract in February. Photo: Che Chapman
Sunshine Coast Council CEO Michael Whittaker (left) shakes hands with Mayor Mark Jamieson after his appointment to a five-year term in 2015. The council quietly extended Mr Whittaker's contract in February. Photo: Che Chapman

Council hid secret deal for highly-paid senior executive

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SUNSHINE Coast Council failed to notify ratepayers of its decision to extend the contract of its highest-paid bureaucrat just over 12 months out from local government elections.

Chief Executive Officer Michael Whittaker's previous contract had been due to expire in September 2020, which would have given the new council, to be elected in March, the opportunity to decide on whether to offer him a new deal.

Instead the council went behind closed doors at its February 28 general meeting to discuss an extension.

It returned to open session to vote to do so in a motion that gave no indication as to what had been decided.

No announcement was made of the decision about its most senior executive who commands its largest salary believed to be in excess of $400,000 annually.

Mr Whittaker took up his appointment on a five-year contract in September 2015. It was due to expire next year.

Ratepayer groups and newly-announced mayoral candidate Chris Thompson have criticised the lack of transparency.

The decision was hidden in a motion voted in an open session of the council after councillors had gone behind closed doors to discuss "a contractual matter".

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The resolution, moved by the Mayor Mark Jamieson and seconded by his Deputy Tim Dwyer, stated only that the council: "(a) approve the contractual matter as discussed in confidential session and

(b) delegate authority to the mayor to finalise and execute the contractual documentation associated with the matter referred to in (a) above and as discussed in confidential session."

Cr Dwyer, Cr Rick Baberowski (Div 1), Cr Peter Cox (Div 3), Cr John Connolly (Div 4), Cr Christian Dickson (Div 6), Cr Ted Hungerford (Div 7), Cr Jason O'Pray (Div 8) and Cr Stephen Robinson (Div 9) voted to support the extension, which was opposed by Cr Jenny McKay (Div 5) and Cr Greg Rogerson (Div 10).

A Sunshine Coast Council representative has defended the process.

"Matters relating to the appointment of council employees (which includes the Chief Executive Officer) are considered confidential, which is specifically contemplated in section 275 (1) (a) of the Local Government Regulation 2012," the representative said.

"The decision on this matter was made in a public session of the council meeting as is required for all resolutions.

"Confidentiality is maintained on all specific contractual details for council employees.

"There were no changes to the conditions of the contract other than the term of appointment."

Melva Hobson, spokeswoman for peak resident group OSCAR, said transparency should require the council notify ratepayers of the decision.

"OSCAR would ask why extend a contract with more than 12 months to go and a short time before an election," she said.

"What was the urgency. The council needed to be transparent about the decision."

Should ratepayers be notified about local government executives' employment contracts?

This poll ended on 16 November 2019.

Current Results

Absolutely. It's about transparency.

80%

No, as long as it's all above board.

19%

I'm not sure.

0%

This is not a scientific poll. The results reflect only the opinions of those who chose to participate.

Ms Hobson said all resolutions voted on by the council needed to be clear on what was decided.

"One of our major concerns is transparency," she said.

"It is totally unacceptable that a motion voted on in open session should refer to closed-door discussions."

She said while the details should be discussed privately, the appointment and salary should be public knowledge.

Mr Thompson, who has previously served as the council's deputy mayor and as the Division 4 councillor from 2004 to 2016, said the approach was unusual.

"Normally if you extended the contract of a senior official you would tell everyone and justify the decision publicly," he said.

"This is the first time I've seen such a decision hidden from public view. I understand that the decision would be discussed first in confidence, but you would then inform the public.

"If all was well, you would celebrate the employee's achievements."