Fifty years in local government

Article image - Fifty years in local government

After a career of more than 50 years in the local government sector, General Manger of Lake Macquarie City Council, Brian Bell, has called it a day.

It was an advertisement in a window in an outback town called Norseman that led the teenage Brian Bell into an entry-level council job that would develop into a local government career spanning more than 50 years.

Mr Bell was odd-jobbing around Western Australia when he spotted the ad and landed a job as an administrative assistant with Dundas shire, on the edge of the Nullarbor Plain.

His retirement in June from Lake Macquarie City Council, on the New South Wales coast, brings to an end an outstanding career that has seen him traverse the country, and even hop across the Tasman, in a range of senior roles.

“From that first role in local government, I gained an understanding of the importance of providing residents with good service,” Mr Bell recalled.

“The primary issue in local government is always servicing the needs of the community.”

Mr Bell quickly ascended local government ranks in WA, moving to the City of Perth as a cadet, on to the then shire of Mandurah, then the City of Fremantle during the heady era of the America’s Cup, where he landed a plum job assisting in the development of the event.

In 1980, Mr Bell was one of the first in Australia to graduate with tertiary qualifications in environmental health via a program at the WA Institute of Technology (now Curtin University).  

He later completed a Masters thesis on the impact of public decision-making on WA’s Peel-Harvey lake system, which led to his appointment at Wyong Council in NSW and Kogarah, in Sydney, which was his first general manager’s role.

Stints followed at Canterbury, in New Zealand – his wife Cyd’s home country – and Ku-ring-gai in Sydney, before Mr Bell landed the GM job at Lake Macquarie in 2006.

Lake Macquarie City Council won the Bluett Award in 2012, NSW’s highest local government honour, and Mr Bell was awarded a Public Service Medal in 2016, but he nominates fending off an amalgamation under the NSW Government’s Fit for The Future program as his career highlight.

“That is my crowning glory: that we refused to fall into line with the populist argument about bigger councils being better and were able to show, through quality information, that amalgamation was not in the best interests of the 200,000 people of our city.”

A bottom-up style of manager who believes an organisation’s employees are a far better resource for reviews and process improvements than any consultant, Mr Bell believes the key to good local government management is empowering staff and listening to the community.

“While there is no formula to guarantee success, especially within local government, I do believe that when people have a sense of purpose, of ownership, then performance can increase exponentially.”