Snowy Valleys Interim General Manager Bob Stewart has resigned, in a surprising move that will leave a vital position unfilled at a crucial time for the council.
Mr Stewart was a key member of the administrative team responsible for leading Tumut and Tumbarumba through their recent forced amalgamation. However, he told the Times it was time for him to move on, stating his view that the position of general manager should be taken up by someone who is planning to stay long term.
“Part of the process we’ve reached is developing an organisational structure and populating that structure,” he said.
“My personal and professional view is that the general manager should have a major input into that, and I certainly wasn’t planning to be here beyond September 2017. So we’ve decided that this was the time, and I’ve resigned and I’m moving on.”
Mr Stewart had held the position of general manager in Tumut shire council for seven years prior to its forced amalgamation.
Despite his decision to leave the team, he said he believes the amalgamation process is proceeding smoothly.
“We’re on target and it’s going very well,” he said.
“There’s certainly lots of people who want to be a general manager and Tumut is a very attractive place so I’m sure there’ll be a lot of interest in the position.”
Administrator Paul Sullivan has assured that Mr Stewart’s resignation is unrelated to the ongoing merger process.
“There’s a council election coming up in September next year,” he said.
“Bob’s been saying it’s his last run as general manager, and it’s a bit hard if he retirees just before the election and the council has to come up with the new general manager straight away.
“It’s just coincidental. There’s no secrets in this, no hidden agendas, it’s just a transition.”
However, some community members fear that the news does not bode well for the health of the new council. Local Representative committee member and former mayor Trina Thomson said Mr Stewart’s experience in local government was invaluable for the merger’s success.
“Mr Stewart was without doubt the most experienced member of the team working to implement the forced amalgamation of the former Tumbarumba and Tumut shires,” she said.
“His knowledge of Local Government is exceptional while the respect he has earned and the esteem in which he is held by representatives across all government levels and political parties is second to none. We’ve lost that instantly.
“In my opinion, what happens in the short term will significantly impact on the long term outcome of the amalgamation.
“Heading into what is traditionally a quiet time in local government, that being the Christmas New Year period, I think it could be a time of great uncertainty and doubt for the community and many staff.”
Local Representative Council Chairman Scott Stevenson also said Snowy Valleys Council would now be lacking a deeply experienced employee.
“It’s going to be a great loss,” he said.
“He has a full understanding of what it takes to be general manager, he’s been general manager of Tumut for over five years – there’s a lot of knowledge. He’s been through the amalgamation process before so there’s also a lot of knowledge there. It’s going to be a terrible loss.”
Mr Stewart had been in local government for almost four decades, including 20 years as the chief planner and economic development officer at Griffith, and eight years as Director of Environment and Community Services in Liverpool Plains Shire.
In 2010, the Tumut region was battered by floods, which returned in 2012, and under Mr Stewart’s watch the council was responsible for one of the largest infrastructure recovery projects in its history, totalling $20m.
However, former Tumbarumba Mayor Ian Chaffey said Mr Stewart had made a wise decision.
“It’s a time for change,” he said.
“It’s a new opportunity and we need to capitalise on the opportunity it provides. Bob came to this conclusion himself, and I don’t think he’ll regret that. It’s a good opportunity for him to move on.
“He’s made a good contribution to this community, and he’s made a wise decision. I wish him well, and I hope he enjoys his retirement.”
Many in the Tumbarumba community have been vocal in their opposition to the merger, something Mr Stewart, in contrast, openly advocated.
However, Mr Chaffey said there were benefits to the amalgamation that need to be capitalised on.
“I don’t think the world’s collapsed because of the merger,” he said.
“There are lots of advantages to come out of it. I think a more community-oriented organisation is going to come out of it.
“We’ve got to cope with the change or we’re going to be left behind. I don’t think our communities can afford to be left behind. It’s not easy, but we’ve got to make the best out of it.
“I do think it needs to progress a little quicker. There’s a number of issues we have to work through, but we’re starting to gain some traction now.”
Tumbarumba’s Kay Whitehead, who has been Snowy Valleys Interim Deputy General Manager, will fill Mr Stewart’s role until a new General Manager has been decided on by the administrator.
She said Mr Stewart’s resignation simply boiled down to timing.
“He’s always made it clear that he would probably be going before September next year, so he just said he thought it was a good time to finish up.
“He seems very comfortable in the decision, but I won’t speak for him. I’m happy to fill in for the time being and see how it goes.
“We’ll just keep doing the job, all the staff are working pretty hard to make this work and I’m sure they’ll do a good job.”
As for Mr Stewart, he said he’ll be spending some time doing consultancy work, fishing, gardening, and spending time with his grandchildren.