By Michael Roberts | posted on July 31, 2020
AFTER five years as CEO with the Town of Claremont, Rob Stewart was clinically depressed and had fallen out of love with local government.
But a move to the Great Southern ended up rekindling his passion for making change at a local level.
Back in the late 1990s, Mr Stewart was in charge of the Town of Claremont when it made headlines around the world for all the wrong reasons.
The infamous Claremont serial killings had taken place; with the disappearances of Sarah Spiers, Ciara Glennon and Jane Rimmer sending chilling shockwaves through an entire community.
At the same time as dealing with public backlash over the lack of security cameras in the suburb, Mr Stewart’s colleague and then Claremont Mayor Peter Weygers was sensationally named a “person of interest” by police.
Needless to say, life in the office wasn’t easy.
“We had never handled anything like it before and you still had to run the organisation,” Mr Stewart said.
“Nobody knew who to talk to because we were under a lot of pressure for not having any cameras on the street.
“It was really difficult meeting the fathers of the girls who were killed, especially when they were looking for answers I couldn’t give them. It was really tough.
“We ended up putting cameras in but of course it had all stopped by then.”
In an incredibly stressful period both at home and at work, Mr Stewart said he found support in an unlikely place.
“I was studying at the time for my post-grad in marketing and public relations,” he said.
“I would walk into a tute and the tutors would ask the class what I did wrong on the telly last night.
“My classmates would do my assignments for me because they knew I was under the pump. We talked about it more at uni than in the office.”
At the turn of the century, Mr Stewart left his position at the Town of Claremont to start a software development company, but it wasn’t long before local government work piqued his interest once again.
“I was doing some work down in Mount Barker and they let me know they were looking for a CEO,” he said.
“I got back into local government, which is what I know, but those two years out gave me that insight into how the private sector works. It gave me time to recharge my batteries.”
With a fresh mind and a blank canvas to work with, Mr Stewart went about bringing Mount Barker into the 21st century.
“It needed some work, some planning and leadership – that was a challenge,” he said.
“People didn’t even have job descriptions.”
Change was on the agenda and Mr Stewart relished the opportunity.
“The Council was really good – they had already acknowledged they needed a CEO who would bring everything together,” he said.
“They said they were looking to the future and wanted change and they let me go for it.”
Over the next 19 years, Mr Stewart oversaw the transformation of Mt Barker’s main street, the construction of a new environmentally sound administration centre and a purpose-built medical centre.
Mr Stewart said installing security cameras in town had stopped anti-social behaviour “literally overnight”.
The Shire’s new strategic plan also led to a $9m upgrade of Sounness Park including its artificial hockey turf, the joint venture development of the Public Library and Community Resource Centre and the completion of its new Community College.
“A lot of them fell in my lap, but these things happen when you create the right environment,” Mr Stewart said.
“We never thought we would get the hockey pitch done, but you make your own luck.
“Once we got a project finished there was no sitting around celebrating the milestones. It was, what’s next?”
Tomorrow will be Mr Stewart’s last day as Shire of Plantagenet CEO after announcing his retirement in February.
Interim CEO Paul Sheedy has been appointed to take over for a period of six to nine months, with the Shire employing a recruitment agency to find it a permanent fill.
Mr Stewart said he would move back to Perth to be closer to family, but first plans to ride his motorbike around the WA country and catch up with fellow local government CEOs.
“I’ve been here 19 years and I’ve enjoyed every day of it,” Mr Stewart said.
“I let the Council know when I signed my contract four years ago this would be my last one. I’m not getting any younger.
“In many respects it has been a dream job for a CEO in local government. I’ve done things CEOs may never get to do any of them in their whole career.
“There’s been so much this Council has allowed me to achieve. Once you build up the trust then everything opens up.”