The best part of being a general manager working in the local government sector is the ability to affect real change in your community says the Break O’Day Council’s John Brown.
After almost 10 years in the top job – covering two separate appointments – Mr Brown has seen his fair share of change.
His first stint as general manager began in 1993, just after reform hit Tasmania’s 47 councils.
Mr Brown had worked for Fingal Council at the time, which amalgamated with Portland Council to form Break O’Day.
“It was back in 2000 when I decided I needed a change, I could have stayed there, but I needed the change and wanted to do other things which was really good,” he said. “After you’ve been away, and go through other sectors, you come back with different ideas and different perspectives on things.”
Growing up in the village of Pyengana in Tasmania’s north-east, Mr Brown said he had always sought an opportunity to “come back and make a difference”.
“I suppose when you grow up in a small community you do become integrated and you always stay close to the community working with people.”
Starting at the council
Mr Brown has a background in accounting and began his working life with Westpac.
He says the shift into local government was almost accidental.
“With banks they moved you around and I had been at St Helens and at St Marys. With a young family we built a house and we didn’t want to move and a finance job came up at the Fingal Council,” he said.
“I would say local government can provide an incredibly good grounding for anyone going into a management type role because of the variety of what you deal with.”
He said other aspects of working for the council including policy development, grant applications and service delivery served him well when he started work in Launceston for a not-for-profit organisation.
“I spent three years at the Migrant Resource Centre as CEO there and that was an interesting experience, it was completely different in the context of the community services sector,” Mr Brown said.
“It was a really satisfying role and an opportunity to meet some amazing people but there were a lot of similar elements to local government with a heavy focus on community development, economic development and government funding.
“But because it was immigration it was highly volatile with lots of changes.”
During his years away from the council Mr Brown also spent time working with job services agency the O Group, the Tasmanian Farmers and Graziers Association and five years in private enterprise as the owner of the newsagent on Wellington Street.
“We used to be open six and a half days a week from about a quarter-to-five in the morning … we were open about 85 hours a week,” he said. “But we had always intended to go back to the coast because that’s where we grew up, I grew up there and my wife grew up at St Marys.”
When the role of general manager was left vacant in late 2014 the only thought was ‘why not?”.
Future of Break O’Day
The Break O’Day municipality has faced a number of challenges during Mr Brown’s most recent time as general manager including floods and the Tobruk project.
“The Tobruk was probably one of the biggest challenges and frustrations, so now our challenge is really about stage two of the mountain bike network and bringing that to fruition,” he said.
“The challenges which have been there haven’t been insurmountable, we just take them in our stride and there is a good team at the council to work on these challenges together.”
Planning for the next five years is difficult for all Tasmanian councils with potential changes to boundaries, organisational structures and resource sharing studies.
“Employment and economic development is a huge one for us to deal with because with have some of the highest unemployment in the state and one of the most disadvantaged communities in the state, we have the third most disadvantaged community in the state, but there are so many opportunities,” Mr Brown said.
“It is about working on those opportunities but it has got to be opportunities which are relevant to the local community and will work, so that’s a key thing.”
It is the third time Mr Brown has seen discussion surrounding boundary changes, resource sharing and amalgamation in the local government sector.
“The council has a open mind on this, we want to see the facts and the figures and then have discussions with the community about options if there is something that will have a significant impact on the way we operate,” he said.
Break O’Day is involved in two elements to the potential changes, a potential boundary change to the south with the Glamorgan-Spring Bay council and the Northern study.
“There seems to be a reasonable amount of support from the Bicheno and Coles Bay community, particularly Bicheno, to come north and it nearly happened back in 1993 but it was simpler to do it the way they did,” Mr Brown said. “We are interested to see what shakes out of the northern studies … and we have to remind Northern Tasmania that we are part of the north because there can be a central north focus.”