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Troubled Knysna municipality to restart hunt for municipal manager after court ruling

Troubled Knysna municipality to restart hunt for municipal manager after court ruling
The appointment of Ombali Sebola as manager of Knysna municipality has been overturned. (Photo: Knysna Municipality)

In the latest setback for the troubled Knysna municipality, it now has to kick-start a new process to find a municipal manager following a High Court ruling.

The Knysna council must restart the process of finding a new municipal manager following a Western Cape High Court ruling, which set aside the appointment of Ombali Sebola.

On Friday, the court ruled a council decision on 25 January 2023 to appoint Sebola was null and void and thus his appointment was set aside. However, the court ruled that the judgment only affected the appointments and did not affect the validity of decisions made or taken by Sebola in his capacity as municipal manager during his tenure.

Just last week, Daily Maverick reported on a verbal altercation between Sebola and DA councillor Jason White, for which Sebola apologised.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Knysna municipal manager apologises for telling DA councillor to ‘shut up’

The judgment was released on Friday 10 May.

The Knysna communications department told Daily Maverick they could only comment on the court ruling after a special council meeting on Tuesday.

The Democratic Alliance launched the court case on several grounds: it was irrational to appoint an “incompetent” person; the meeting to appoint Sebola excluded the public — which was unlawful; and the council acted with “ulterior” purposes when it excluded chief whips from the selection process.

How did we get here? 

According to the judgment, the process to get a municipal manager kickstarted on 9 December 2021, with advertisements sent out with a closing date of 5 January.

The position was re-advertised on 13 June 2022, with a closing date of 8 July 2022 but because time limits were not adhered to, the post was re-advertised further on 27 September 2022 with 10 October 2022 being the closing date.

Three individuals were shortlisted, including Sebola. An interview process and assessment were conducted on 6 December. However, this panel excluded the DA chief whip in Knysna (Sharon Sabbagh) and other chief whips. A firm was appointed to attend the screening and shortlisting of the candidates, after which a selection report was compiled. Based on the interviews and written selections, the two other candidates advanced, while Sebola needed ‘development/ competent’. The same results were for a ranking system based on experience and knowledge competencies. However, the report did not contain the interview scores which showed Sebola fared the best there.

The selection panel recommended the other two candidates for the municipality. After a meeting on 18 January 2023, the Selection Panel concluded that, in respect of knowledge and experience, “all candidates met the threshold” [10] with regard to the categories of higher education qualification, work-related experience, core managerial and occupational competencies and supply chain management competencies. The selection panel’s report also stated that it had considered a number of factors, including that Sebola scored the highest in the interview and it ultimately recommended that Sebola should be appointed for the position.

However, during a January 2023 council meeting, a report by the Knysna mayor Aubrey Tswenga, was prepared for council which stated “The panel in their recommendation of Mr OP Sebola took into account a number of considerations, including the fact that Mr Sebola performed the best and scored the highest points in the structured interview, transformation and representivity.  The panel is further encouraged and, as advised by the consultant, further recommends that a strong executive management team be appointed to support the municipal manager”.

Both the selection panel and reports were attached to the mayor’s report and on 25 January 2023, the council held a special council meeting in which the municipal manager appointment was an agenda item. The reports were provided to councillors.

According to the judgment, the Speaker ruled the report was to be dealt “in committee” — closed to the public. Minutes of the meeting reflected various caucus breaks to discuss and consider the reports, with two proposals emerging. One proposal by Sabbagh was that the appointment be re-advertised due to material mistakes and irregularities. The judgement did not show what the other proposal was.

According to the judgment, the Speaker used his casting vote to support the mayor’s proposal — which was resolved by a majority — that the council took note of the selection committee report and that Sebola, who performed the best and scored the highest points during the structured interview.

The recommendation was that Sebola be appointed as municipal manager for five years.

Read the full judgement here. 

The DA’s Knysna constituency head Dr Dion George described Sebola’s tenure as “blatantly inadequate, exacerbating crises in water supply, finances, refuse removal, and sewage management”.

The municipality is currently facing a crisis in service delivery, with a diagnostic assessment plan underway to help with issues such as sewage and refuse crises, and difficulties in communication between councillors and the community.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Five key takeaways from the Knysna service delivery diagnostic report

Touching on the verbal altercation towards a DA councillor, George said: “Mr Sebola’s recent display of disrespect toward a public representative underscores his disregard for the people of Knysna”. DM

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