By Shane Scanlan
Melbourne councillors will decide in the next couple of weeks whether to keep or replace CEO Ben Rimmer, whose four-year contract expires on February 8.
If they are to replace Mr Rimmer, they have until September 8 to give him the required six months’ notice.
With time running out for the scheduled July 31 council meeting, a closed session of the full council on August 28 is the most likely date for a decision on Mr Rimmer’s future.
Mr Rimmer’s controlling style hasn’t won him many friends among councillors or staff, with his time at the helm being hallmarked by an exodus of senior staff.
Only two directors, Rob Adams and Linda Weatherson, remain since Mr Rimmer was employed in 2015. The most recent senior casualty is chief financial officer Phu Nguyen.
Councillors remain tight-lipped about Mr Rimmer’s future, determined to maintain the integrity of the employment process. But outsiders have had plenty to say about his performance in the top job.
Perhaps the most high-profile commentator has been former premier Jeff Kennett who in March publicly predicted Mr Rimmer would not see out the year.
Former councillor Stephen Mayne, who was on the four-person committee which recommended Mr Rimmer for the job in 2014, told CBD News it was time for change.
“Ben Rimmer is incredibly smart, hard-working and a good innovator, but his true love is state and federal government, so when his four-year contract is up early next year, it would probably make sense for all concerned if he returned to those arenas and was replaced by a CEO with a little more respect for the local government sector, including the important role played by councillors,” Mr Mayne said.
“During Ben Rimmer’s time at town hall, staff costs have blown out but there has also been quite an exodus of senior executives, which has raised questions about the culture that has developed under his command and control leadership style.”
Three councillors and independent chair Janine Kirk comprise the council’s employment matters committee. While this committee is charged with monitoring performance and recommending actions, the final decision rests with the councillor group as a whole.
Councillors on the committee are Lord Mayor Sally Capp, finance and governance chair Arron Wood and Cathy Oke.
Annual reports show that Mr Rimmer has not had a pay rise since he started and remains on a salary of $460,000. He spent many months away from the job battling illness, with the administration at the time refusing to reveal the nature of his illness or Mr Rimmer’s payment arrangement.
During this time, former director Martin Cutter acted in the role. Earlier this year, Mr Cutter resigned to take up the CEO role at the City of Greater Geelong.
As previously reported by CBD News, the City of Melbourne is the state’s most secretive council, taking more decisions behind closed doors than any other (except East Gippsland where officers have no delegated decision-making powers).
We have also previously reported that the City of Melbourne makes only a third the number of decisions in public than it made 10 years ago.
Mr Rimmer declined to be interviewed by CBD News and at the council’s Future Melbourne Committee on July 17, Lord Mayor Sally Capp ruled ineligible, a question asking Mr Rimmer if he was seeking a further contract as CEO.
“Before there’s an answer on that, I’m going to overrule it. I don’t think it’s appropriate to ask and discuss personnel matters in this environment,” Cr Capp said.
Mr Rimmer’s handling of the former lord mayor Robert Doyle sex scandal is likely to be a consideration for councillors. After designing and launching the “Freckleton inquiry” into allegations against Mr Doyle, Mr Rimmer appears unable or unwilling to conclude the investigation.
It’s also not insignificant that the council’s signature Queen Victoria Market redevelopment project languishes in limbo, mired in state political intrigue.
Victorian legislation limits councillor contact and influence exclusively to the chief executive officer. The CEO is the only council officer they can hire or fire.
Following Mr Rimmer’s appointment in 2015, former councillor Stephen Mayne wrote extensively about his sense of excitement on Crikey.com: “We now just need the new CEO to be a superstar when working for the first time in local government and to a board,” he concluded.
“No pressure there for the former professional violinist who used to busk on the streets of Melbourne before filling out that remarkable CV covering honours in Law and Arts, Boston Consulting Group, an Oxford MBA and then senior posts such as deputy secretary of the Department of Premier and Cabinet in Victoria before being Kevin Rudd’s lead negotiator on hospital reform and Tony Abbott’s man running a major change program at Centrelink with 40,000 staff.”
By Shane Scanlan