When you hear the words ‘local council’ you tend to think perhaps of old community centres and parochial bickering. As the CEO of Blue Mountains City Council, Dr Rosemary Dillon is certainly changing that image. Her tenure has been one of innovation, strategy, community engagement and cutting-edge sustainability.
As one of only two cities in the world being located within a UNESCO declared World Heritage Area, she says Blue Mountains Council recognises its stewardship responsibility in managing the City of Blue Mountains sustainably within a landscape of global biodiversity significance.
With a philosophy of “think globally, act locally”, under Rosemary’s leadership the Council is currently working with a number of universities (Monash, Western Sydney and UTS), local organisations including the Blue Mountains World Heritage Institute and with the community, to implement a leading edge Blue Mountains Planetary Health Initiative.
Now in the CEO role for almost four years, Rosemary’s time with the Council spans decades. “My first job at the Council was in 1991 as the Community Services Coordinator and I was then promoted through various roles,” Rosemary explains.
“I’ve done everything: recreation planning, economic development, town centres, corporate planning, and then I’ve run the finances. I’ve worked my way up.” Her first few years in the top job have been remarkably successful given the various crises she’s had to manage and support the Council and community through. “I went into the job when we were in the throes of an organisational crisis,” Rosemary shares.
“I have managed through multiple investigations and a public inquiry focused on asbestos management, as well as bushfires, floods and COVID.” Her leadership strategy is transformational and inclusive. One of the first things she initiated was an award-winning comprehensive organisational performance review – ‘Forward Together’ – that engaged staff and was a best practice, innovative and strategic approach to strengthening the Council’s overall culture, structure and business performance.
It resulted in the development of an ‘Improvement Strategy and Action Plan’ as well as a new organisational structure and operating model focused on being ‘One Organisation, Strategy Led and Service Focused’.
The Council is also now known as an “exemplar” in the management of asbestos, after making workplace health and safety a key improvement area for the organisation and introducing a fair and just culture that revolves around a no-blame environment.
Rosemary is committed to achieving a sustainable council leading a sustainable city. She’s quite pragmatic that this includes ensuring the Council is financially sustainable.
“In 2011, I took over the Council’s finances and initiated our Six Strategies for Financial Sustainability. As part of this, she successfully managed three Special Rate Variation processes that substantially increased the Council’s revenue and effectively negotiated affordable and acceptable levels of service with community.
“At this time, we had over A$1.2 million in ageing built assets and a debt of A$60 million,” Rosemary reveals. “Our debt is now down to around A$20 million. The debt reduction strategy we have implemented has generated an additional A$4 million each year for us to put into renewal of our ageing assets and improving our services. Had we not done the work on improving our overall financial sustainability, we wouldn’t have been able to maintain all our current levels of service during multiple crises.
“Now in 2021, we are effectively implementing strategies to manage risks and maintain our built and natural assets. This includes an exciting focus on green and blue assets and not just traditional grey assets. The Council is currently implementing award-winning Water Sensitive City, bush care and environmental restoration strategies and programs.”
None of Rosemary’s sustainability plans are simply lip service to the current environmental, social and governance trend in the corporate world. This is a community that needs sustainability after – literally – being burned in the past.
“We are a unique city of 27 villages across 100 kilometres of mountainous terrain,” she explains and “one of the most bushfire-prone cities in the world”. BURNING PLATFORM “In 2013, we had 196 homes destroyed, a huge loss of animals and wildlife, and a massive impact on our local economy,” Rosemary shares.
“Then in 2019–20, we had unprecedented bushfires. At one point we were surrounded on three fronts, and one of them, the Gospers Mountain fire, was the largest forest fire ever recorded in Australia; over 500,000 hectares, about seven times the size of Singapore was burned. “We have always felt our responsibility as a city within a World Heritage Area, but also as a local government area, to act locally for the imperatives that are impacting Australia and the world at the moment in terms of climate change.”
The Council is also focused on reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2025 and recently became the first council in Australia to integrate the ‘Rights of Nature’ into its decision-making and planning processes. There is no doubt that the community buys into what Rosemary is trying to achieve as more than 1,100 volunteers give their time to the Council’s programs and projects each year.
And while the Blue Mountains has become a more resilient and sustainable community over the years, Rosemary wants to help it change as well. “We are a very resilient community, but the truth is, we have a choice: are we just going to adapt and work on resilience or are we going to actually grow planetary health at the local level?” Rosemary asks, rhetorically.
“We believe it is imperative that everyone takes action at every level, we all have a role to play and that’s especially the case for local government. The world is made up of thousands of local government areas and if we all take action, who knows, we might just achieve a bottom up revolution that saves the planet!”