Emergency services chief Georgeina Whelan told the chair of the ACT Bushfire Council she had lost confidence in the group's advice, accusing its members of undermining her agency in the aftermath of last summer's fire season.
The commissioner made the claims in an explosive letter to Dr Sarah Ryan, exposing a rift between the agency and the panel of experts tasked with advising the ACT government on preparing for bushfires.
The flashpoint was a meeting in which council members expressed concern that the government-commissioned external review of the fire season had overlooked key problems raised by volunteer firefighters.
Ms Whelan is now insisting she does trust the council's advice, but that she wanted its feedback to be communicated in a more "constructive" way.
Revelations of the rift come two days after The Canberra Times revealed the council's concerns about the "persistent shortcomings" in the ACT's bushfire preparedness.
They were detailed in a report presented to Emergency Services Minister Mick Gentleman in November, which has still not been released to the public.
Weeks earlier, on September 22, Ms Whelan sent a two-page letter to Dr Ryan, telling her she didn't have confidence in the council's advice, nor did she believe the advisory body was operating as it was intended under the territory's Emergencies Act.
The conduct of council members, clarity about its role and its "effectiveness and efficiency" were all matters of ongoing concern for Ms Whelan, according to the letter obtained by The Canberra Times under freedom-of-information laws.
The council, which is made up of experts across fields including firefighting, land management and farming, provides recommendations to the minister on bushfire preparedness and advice to the commissioner.
Council members are appointed by the minister and receive a payment for attending meetings.
In her letter, Ms Whelan made specific reference to the conduct of council members at its September 2 meeting, when deputy commissioner Ray Johnson briefed the group on the findings of an external review of the handling of the 2019-20 fire season.
Minutes from the meeting show that at least two council members expressed concern that the consultant's final report had not addressed issues raised by volunteer firefighters.
Comments from council members discrediting this significant piece of work are extremely disappointing and concerningESA commissioner Georgeina Whelan
Both members attended workshops where firefighters provided feedback on the season, which was fed back to the consultant to inform its final report.
Leaked feedback from the sessions revealed widespread discontent among brigades about their treatment on the fireground and the overall handling of the season's emergencies.
However the final report, which generally praised the ACT's response, made no reference to specific allegations and only in passing acknowledged the volunteers' concerns.
Minutes from the September 2 meeting also showed that several council members questioned why there hadn't been a fully independent review of the firefighting response.
The council pointed to that issue, as well the glossing over of the firefighters' concerns in the external review, in the report handed to Mr Gentleman in November.
In her letter, Ms Whelan staunchly defended the government-commissioned review, saying it was the most "open and transparent" process in the agency's history, drawing on feedback from hundreds of staff and volunteers through 38 workshops.
"Comments from council members discrediting this significant piece of work are extremely disappointing and concerning," the letter stated.
"Such comments do not well serve the minister and commissioner to whom the council is intended to provide advice, and do not reflect well on the council in terms of its performance of this role."
Ms Whelan broadened her criticism beyond the conduct of members at the September 2 meeting, claiming "this general attitude and behaviour ... has become a consistent undertone to our interactions".
"I am supportive of open, transparent and robust discussions, and would hope to establish a collaborative working relationship where we can benefit from the expertise and experience of your membership.
"But an environment where the work of the ESA is consistently criticised or dismissed, and where my officers are not given the respect for their expertise is not productive.
"I feel that while the ESA is making every attempt to strengthen and maintain the relationship with council, this is continually undermined by the conduct of council members."
Ms Whelan concluded the letter by asking Dr Ryan to meet to discuss how to address the problems.
Dr Ryan responded via email, telling Ms Whelan that she would appreciate an opportunity discuss ways to achieve a "better working relationship".
Correspondence between the pair showed they met on September 28. Ms Whelan described the meeting as a "really constructive way of working through our collective issues".
In an interview with The Canberra Times, Ms Whelan said the agency and the council had a "robust and healthy relationship".
She said the council put forward views and recommendations which she didn't always agree with, but indicated that was expected in what she described as an "environment of contestability".
However, she remained critical of how council members communicated their views.
"There are times where the way in which some of that information or opinions are relayed, I would like to be a little bit more constructive," she said.
"I do have confidence in the advice. I may not always agree with some of the recommendations that they make borne out of the advice. But there is a difference between the confidence in the advice and manner in which that advice is relayed."
Ms Whelan strongly dismissed any suggestion that she wanted the council abolished, saying she "always believed in having an objective and independent body that holds me to account".
The Canberra Times contacted Dr Ryan for comment late last week, but did not receive a response before deadline.
The council must get approval from the minister's office to make media statements, according to its terms of reference.
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