‘Paroo’s really a hidden gem, I really believe that’

Paroo mayor Lindsay Godfrey with new CEO Oliver Simon.Paroo mayor Lindsay Godfrey with new CEO Oliver Simon.

PAROO SHIRE council’s new CEO met council staff and walked around the CBD with his wife greeting shopkeepers and local identities after he signed the contract on Monday this week. Oliver Simon, who starts the job on 29 May, said they were both excited about the move, which will involve uprooting from their home on the Gold Coast.

He comes to the southwest after 30 years working for the state department of tourism, sport and racing, and Caboolture and Logan councils. A Melburnian, Simon grew up with cricket and AFL, and studied urban and regional planning at RMIT before moving to Qld. He said he learnt to appreciate rugby league during his 10 years with the government agency, where he ended up as manager of the facilities development branch. Simon then moved to Caboolture to establish its community services unit, which also involved building a PCYC youth centre.

After four years with Caboolture, he moved to Logan city council in March 2000 as deputy CEO of community and customer services. He spent 16 years with the council before striking out as a consultant last year. Simon, 54, said he applied for the Paroo job looking for a challenge, felt he had the contacts and experience to make an impact for the shire and enjoyed working with vibrant communities.

He said his conversations with people during the walkabout suggested they were passionate about the town and the shire. During the interview process last week Simon was also impressed with the proactive attitude and commitment of the councillors. At Logan, population 310,000, he’d been involved in all frontline services, including roads, water and sewerage, and media and marketing, and looked forward to bringing that experience to Paroo. “It’s really a hidden gem, I really believe that,” he said of the shire.

Simon succeeds Chris Cowley, 42, who left on 10 March, just over halfway through his four-year contract because his daughter Trinity, 14, wasn’t coping with the move to Cunnamulla state school. Acting CEO Stuart Randle said council had offered the new recruit an improved package of more than $200,000 a year. Simon’s wife Gabriele, a 53-year-old writer, will be moving to Cunnamulla with him. They have three children – schoolteacher Natasha, 30, who has an 18-month-old daughter, law graduate Sebastian, 35, and Jordan, 22, who works in produce at Woolworths.

A fellow of the Australian institute of company directors, Simon said he had yet to delve into the council’s books or operational matters. This month, the state auditor sounded the alarm about Paroo’s finances, rating it one of the least sustainable in Qld, along with indigenous councils such as Cherbourg, Kowanyama and Mornington. The council, which has budgeted for a $659,000 operating loss this year, is facing budget deficits of $2.3m-$2.5m every year for the next 10 years, mostly because of depreciating assets. On 21 April councillors voted to give themselves pay rises of 34% to 120%, phased in over three years, to bring them into line with other category one councils.

Simon said Cunnamulla had good infrastructure with capacity to sustain more than 3000 people, so there was room for growth, and he was impressed with facilities such as the airport. “I will be interested to see what business and economic activity the council and community can attract to the shire,” he said. “Councils have to think differently and be innovative.”

Mayor Lindsay Godfrey said the couple met council’s office and outside staff, and visited the Aboriginal health corp and the library. He said Simon could draw on networks and relationships with government ministers and departments, which would be valuable for Paroo. “The thing that appealed to me was his experience,” he said. “He’s been working at Logan shire a long time and in that time has been across nearly all the many local government departments. That gives him a big advantage coming into Cunnamulla. In smaller shires the CEO has to be a generalist. The other thing that stood out for me is Logan has many of the same community issues as Cunnamulla, although Logan’s population is growing dramatically and the Paroo shire population is shrinking dramatically.”

Lindsay said the couple were very optimistic about the town and appeared to like what they saw on Monday. Simon told councillors he liked camping and fishing, and hoped to improve his golf handicap. Gabriele also told the mayor the CEO’s riverfront house in Weir road seemed a good place for writing. “I’m hoping she will write a bestseller and bring everyone to Cunnamulla,” Lindsay said.

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