A year ago, faced with a disastrous staff survey which took aim at Christchurch City Council’s leaders, Chief Executive Dawn Baxendale wrote a reassuring email to her more than 2500 staff.

The executive leadership team took the results seriously, she said, and had indulged in soul-searching “around our own behaviours and the way in which these are perceived”.

“We have re-committed to being the best team we can be and to continuing to build our relationships.”

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Discontent had flared in many directions but a major issue in last year’s survey was pay – or lack of it. City council staff felt they were underpaid, as well as being overworked and over-stressed.

One survey comment said: “Leaders are obsessed with cost-cutting without acknowledging the effects on staff.”

(The survey picked up on a toxic culture, in which “bullying and intimidating behaviours [were] common and concerning”. More on that later.)

Baxendale’s own pay was a source of dissatisfaction.

Yes, she took a cut after Covid hit, but her salary increased by $16,000 in 2021 and $18,000 last year, taking it to almost $550,000.

The Prime Minister’s salary, frozen for the past three years, is $471,000.

In September last year, acting city council chief executive Jane Davis – remember that name – answered Newsroom’s questions about the staff survey.

She declared the council had an “action plan” to address many issues, including a review of pay and benefits. The remuneration review should be completed by March of this year, she assured.

The council could then track its progress addressing issues raised by staff.

Progress, it’s fair to say, hasn’t been great.

Project only started last month

Dealing with the remuneration review first, the council’s general manager of resources and chief financial officer Leah Scales said the project only started last month.

“Our intention was to commence this project earlier. However, our two other key projects, the leadership competence framework and the people and culture strategy, took longer due to changes in resourcing.”

(The council should be used to “resourcing” changes by now. Last year, roughly 20 percent of its permanent staffers left. In February, two top managers – Jane Davis, the previously mentioned general manager of infrastructure, planning and regulatory services, and head of three waters Helen Beaumont – left in sudden and mysterious circumstances. Newsroom put a series of questions to the council about Davis and Beaumont, including how much they’ve been paid while away from work, to which Baxendale responded: “We have no comment.”)

Scales – who took more than a week to respond to Newsroom’s questions – said the remuneration review would be completed by September, which was always the deadline so as to be finished in time for the annual remuneration review.

Bargaining has begun with the PSA union, which has about 900 members at the city council.

“The council needs to realise it’s no longer the employer of choice,” said Adrian Mealing, the PSA’s local government organiser. “Gone are the days where working there was something that filled workers with pride.”

Council pay figures, released to Newsroom, show it’s more prepared to give pay rises now than in the past few years. But since 2020 many staffers have had a real-terms pay cut.

After the pandemic hit, there was a salary freeze for those on individual contracts, and a hiring freeze. (Scales said reducing the budget for across-the-board pay rises meant it didn’t make redundancies because of Covid.)

Only 705 pay rises (average increase 4.9 percent) were granted in the 2020-21 financial year, mostly those on the collective agreement and the living wage.

The following financial year, 2618 people got an increase, but the average reduced to 2.6 percent; the median 1.5 percent.

In the current financial year, 2426 pay rises have been granted – to 93 percent of staff. Of those increases, 20 percent of workers got a 3 percent rise (including Baxendale), 31 percent were below that level, and 49 percent were above. Only 10 percent of pay rises were above 6.5 percent.

(The council’s caveats are that those figures exclude people changing jobs, or taking on more responsibilities, or switching contracts. What was included was increases via remuneration review, job evaluation, collective agreement increases – automatic and negotiated – minimum wage, living wage, and a “broadband increase”.)

If you were one of the unfortunate council staffers to suffer a pay freeze, followed by bumps of 1.5 percent or less, and then 3 percent or less, your pay has been going backwards, in real terms.

The Reserve Bank’s inflation calculator shows from the first quarter of 2020 to the first quarter of this year, a basket of goods worth $1 would now cost $1.16, and the “change in purchasing power” is -13.6 percent.

Striking a balance

Newsroom asked the council how many staff, over the past three financial years, had pay rises of less than 10 percent, all up, and less than 5 percent. Scales didn’t provide figures.

Her statement said it was challenging being a local government employer.

“We need to strike the right balance between being competitive enough to retain existing staff and attract new staff in a very dynamic labour market, and ensuring ratepayers know we are being financially responsible.”

“Balance” might not cut it, however.

The executive summary of this year’s staff survey, released in April, said culture at the council is “suffering”, morale is “very low”, there was inadequate remuneration, and high staff turnover. Workloads are unsustainable, and there was risk of burnout.

Leadership, the survey noted, was “an area people do not identify as a strength”, culminating in a lack of confidence in the ELT (executive leadership team).

“There’s no recognition or action from ELT to address remuneration concerns,” the survey said.

Mealing, of the PSA, had a message for the council’s leaders: “It’s time to value your workers better, acknowledge their good work, and importantly in this cost of living crisis come to the table with a fair offer that compensates workers for the challenges they face.

“While the council is contemplating increasing rates, it should be thinking how it can better invest in its workforce, lift morale and properly tackle the issues it has with retention and recruitment.”

Newsroom asked the council to respond to Mealing’s comments, but Scales said as bargaining had been initiated by the PSA “we are not able to respond to the media on points raised”.

“Examples of bullying and harassment are rife within pockets of council.” – Adrian Mealing of PSA

Bullying has been a feature of city council staff surveys for years.

In 2020, the survey mentioned bullying behaviour by leaders.

Last year’s survey noted a “culture of fear” in some areas, though some staff enjoyed “favouritism” despite poor performance.

In this year’s survey, only 54 percent of respondents said the organisation had “clear and effective systems for dealing with intimidating behaviour and workplace bullying, which are applied consistently”.

Since July 2019, council staff have made 41 complaints about bullying, including 15 in 2021 alone. Ten “met the threshold for an investigation”, and five resulted in some form of reprimand.

The council’s bullying and harassment prevention guidelines, instituted in 2018, are under review.

Newsroom asked for comment from a named council spokesperson about bullying. Instead, it chose to provide an unattributed statement through its official information team.

The council has “zero tolerance” to bullying and harassment, the statement said.

“The executive leadership team has demonstrated a strong commitment to creating a culture where bullying and harassment is not tolerated.”

Listed actions included: regular reporting to ELT, compulsory online training for all employees, people leader training, and appointing anti-bullying champions.

Last month, the council launched a ‘Be Cool, Not Cruel’ campaign to highlight public abuse of council staff.

Mealing, of the PSA, says: “It is clear to the PSA from regular interactions with members that examples of bullying and harassment are rife within pockets of council.

“It’s upsetting that the willingness of impacted workers to raise these issues with managers is stymied by fear of retribution, and loss of job security.

The “barriers”, in many cases, reside in middle management, he says.

“The PSA is hopeful that the reshaping of the HR team within council will provide a better platform for change.”

Pulling all the strands together, from the inside the council seems to be in turmoil.

Rubbing salt in those wounds, the public also has a dim view of the organisation.

The annual residents survey, released a few weeks ago, had an overall satisfaction rate of 43 percent – 1 percentage point above last year’s figure.

A council press statement said satisfaction had “stabilised” ,and Baxendale said “while there’s a lot of room for improvement, we’re cautiously optimistic about this result”.

One wonders if there’s an action plan to turn those figures around, and whether it will be as effective as its plan to address issues raised by staff.

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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