You are here: Home / Media / Clover's right-hand woman

Clover's right-hand woman

Monica Barone is not your typical CEO. Artworks adorn her office walls, and there is not a whiff of smugness from the woman who manages a good deal of Sydney's urban infrastructure writes Emma Kemp in City News of 2 November 2008.

"Hello, I'm Monica, how are my lips?" she says, puckering in anticipation of a photo.

Ms Barone is the CEO of the City of Sydney, or to put it more simply – Lord Mayor Clover Moore's right-hand woman.

Once a key member of the performing arts community, Ms Barone describes her current job as her “second career”. For her, it was a natural progression, complementary roles that are both about "understanding what's important to particular community groups and finding ways to express that".

After completing a Masters degree in creative arts, theatre and performance, Ms Barone spent almost 14 years as a practising artist, with much of that time spent in community cultural development.

Her creative outlet was with the performance group People Next Door. The group toured nationally and to the Philippines at the invitation of the Philippine Educational Theatre Association. She was also invited to the Netherlands to run a two-month program that included a series of lectures and seminars on Australian theatre in the University of Utrecht.

She made the shift to local government 12 years ago, taking on the role of cultural planner at Warringah Council.

"I kind of got to a point in my career where I had had enough of being a poor artist," she said. "As much as I loved it, it was really difficult, and once I had children it was just too difficult.

"So I was a cultural planner, but I was in a strategic planning group, and I found that I really loved it and I had a bit of a knack for it, and over time I became the manager of that group."

Her community focus combined with the experience she gained in economic and infrastructure planning at Warringah Council saw her appointed as director of community development for South Sydney Council. Following the amalgamation of this council with the City of Sydney, Ms Barone was appointed as the city's CEO in 2006 amid the turmoil of a premature departure from her predecessor, Peter Seamer. Two-and-a-half years later and counting, she seems to grown into the role.

And for someone with such a knack for the arts, it is interesting that Ms Barone describes the environment as her "favourite" issue.

"It's the thing that I think is completely not negotiable," she said. "Anyone who's got any responsibility in contributing to the future of a city and a community, I think has to be 100 per cent focused on the environment now, 'cause if we fail there, nothing else is going to be of any value. So it's my favourite, it terrifies me, it exhilarates me and it challenges me."

Barone's passion for the environment stemmed from when she watched an SBS program on climate change with her daughter Bonny, seven or eight years old at the time.

"There were pictures of floods and famine, and whole nations on fire. And she just turned to me and said, 'Mum, I want to die of old age not because the planet falls apart'. And ever since I've sought out the opportunity to do something about that. And so I always say when I talk about it that I'm not going to be able to promise my daughter that I fixed it, but I'm going to be able to promise her that I tried."

But with a recession looming, one has to ask whether the City of Sydney's Sustainable Sydney 2030 plan (which has no concrete price tag attached to it) will need to be tweaked to allow a bit of financial flexibility.

"We're like everyone, we have to be very careful, and we have to plan," she said. "You have to have priorities and you also just have to space it out and say 'this is what we can afford to do now, and this is what we can't afford to do and we'll have to wait'.

"Things will come as we plan them, and sometimes as the opportunity arises, because sometimes communities have an appetite for something more. They might say that childcare is an issue they want us to focus on, so we'll say, 'ok let's focus on that for a while'."

Not surprisingly, she believes the Lord Mayor is "absolutely wonderful".

"I enjoy working with her thoroughly, and I think I'm very lucky to have this job."

Ms Barone says the job rewards her every single day because she has the opportunity to facilitate real change.

"You know I run around doing so many things and I get to the end of the day and just think 'how lucky am I?'. The only thing that's hard, I keep saying to people, 'if only I didn't have to sleep, because then we could get so much more done'."

The job impacts on more than Ms Barone's sleep. She tells me her daughter Bonny, now 17, is doing a hairdressing apprenticeship. "You would think I'd have better hair wouldn't you," says Barone, gesturing towards her head. "Actually, this morning she got up and she said to me, 'oh your hair's so frizzy, mummy it looks like you've been electrocuted'.

But frazzled as she (or maybe just her hair) may be, Ms Barone says the stage curtain won't be coming down anytime soon. "At the moment I'm very focused on being here. Usually when I go into a job, what tends to happen to me is I'm always thinking what I want my next job to be. Well when I got this job I felt like I'd arrived. This is the job."