Farewell Dick

Former Council Administrator, Dick Persson

On Wednesday, May 12, Dick Persson officially stepped down as Administrator of Central Coast Council after serving six months at the helm as Council set about clawing its way back from financial disaster.

First appointed by Local Government Minister Shelley Hancock for three months on October 30 last year, Persson’s tenure was extended by three months as the depth of the measures needed to get Council back on an even keel was revealed.

“At first I said no to the appointment but was convinced my services were needed – and this has been the hardest Council of the four where I have served as Administrator,” he said.

“The extent of the financial disaster was greater than I had imagined.

“People in local government tend to expect that there are enough checks and balances in place, and it was mind-boggling that this Council had to go to the State Government and say it couldn’t afford to pay staff wages.

“There was an element of crisis I hadn’t fully anticipated.”

Persson said one of the most stressful times during his tenure was in the days leading up to Christmas, as Council awaited a decision on whether or not it had been successful in obtaining a $100M loan from “last lender still prepared to deal with us”.

“It was a tense period of waiting but we got that loan and that meant we could continue to trade successfully,” he said.

“One of hardest things I had to deal with was laying off staff.

“Some people were happy to take voluntary redundancy but there were some staff members who didn’t volunteer and that was difficult.”

Persson said probably the most important decision he had made was to employ David Farmer as Council’s new CEO.

“I feel now that there is no danger of things going backwards even if some of the suspended councillors are returned at the next election (expected to be in September 2022),” he said.

Persson said the role of Central Coast Council Administrator would be his last in local government.

“I’m looking forward to getting back home to Bronte and spending more time with my family,” he said.

“I don’t like being in hotels on my own – that’s the thing I got most sick of; eating alone, watching TV alone in hotel rooms after finishing work for the day.”

Persson spent his time as Administrator working part-time from home but spending at least three days each week on the Coast, staying at the Gosford Palms Motor Inn and Kooindah Waters.

“My wife came up twice to visit, but she has commitments at home,” he said.

“We have five grandchildren under seven and are very involved with them.”

While the job proved to be a hard slog, Persson said it wasn’t without its funny moments.

“I can remember doing a phone interview standing in the carpark of The Palms in my pyjamas,” he said.

“While you come across some people whose view of the world is self-centred (in such a role), one of the most enjoyable things about my time on the Coast was that I also got to meet some fantastic people.

“I visited places such as The Glen, Coast Shelter and Pacific link Housing – all of which are doing wonderful work.

“That’s what gives you the energy and enthusiasm you need.

“There was not a lot of room for positive initiatives, but I was pleased to do some work around disability playgrounds with (community activist) Gary Blashke.”

Persson acknowledged he had made some unpopular decisions.

“I know there are some concerns around asset sales and the proposed rate rise, but our lender wanted to be satisfied we had a plan whereby we would increase revenue (rates), pay down debt (asset sales) and cover operating costs (staff cuts),” he said.

Persson said he had no doubt the recently announced public inquiry into Council would come up with the same conclusions he had reached – that the root cause of the crisis was that the former Council CEO and CFO and councillors did not do their job properly.

“I have also been disappointed in the lack of leadership of local State and Federal MPs,” he said.

“Not one of them has supported the hard decisions – some of them have actively opposed them – and yet none of them has come up with alternatives.”

Persson said he had achieved most of what he had set out to do, although he would have liked to see a decision from the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal (IPART) on a proposed 13 per cent rate rise above the 2 per cent cap before he left the job.

“If that rate rise is not approved, the consequences of finding another $27M in savings would be devastating,” he said.

That decision is expected to be handed down by the end of May.

Persson said he would write to the Minister suggesting changes to the Local Government Act which would see suspended or dismissed councillors ineligible to run at the next election.

While leisure time was virtually non-existent during his tenure, Persson said the Coast had a “lot of gorgeous places”.

“There are some challenges around geography and lack of public transport but I can see why people love to live here,” he said.

Terry Collins