In Council Chambers – by Peter Cormick
The new Council has been in place for almost three months and have so far met on four occasions - in the ‘chamber’ - at what has been dubbed the ‘Taj’ - in Moruya. But what have our representatives been up to? Is it simply going to be more of the same? Or will our new councillors fulfil - or at least pursue - the promises they have made. And will those who said nothing, who made no commitments and presented no policies during the election campaign, pursue any of the changes that keep being called for?
This new council has six new faces and we can only hope that there will be far more cooperation between them – and the old guard - than we saw with the previous council; which, coincidentally, also had six newcomers.
You can see what your representatives are up to by either attending meetings of council and see them live, as if at a play, or, far more conveniently, watch the meetings via the internet as they take place or later, by accessing the video archives. In this way you can see each of them perform: what they have to say and what they bring to council. While staff put the meeting agenda together and place reports before councillors, seeking their approval to whatever is being proposed, councillors themselves have plenty of opportunity to initiate policy. One way this can be done is through what is known as a Notice of Motion. You will see these referred to near the commencement of the meeting agendas. It is through this mechanism that councillors can propose a course of action, call for a matter to be debated and a position to be decided upon. But councillors, as a whole, can and do also work with staff in the formulation of reports placed before councillors at their Ordinary Meetings. In any event, the frequency and nature of councillors’ Notices of Motion can be a seen as one form of measure of their application to the job. And, of course, the most obvious measure will be the extent to which a councillor will engage in debate at meetings in the chamber. It is worth the two or three hours it might take twice a month to see just what your council is up to when it meets. Staff also get to speak at meetings, but only in response to questions asked by councillors or to provide clarification.
Review of Council Policies:
For those of you who want to be involved in the review of council’s many policies, now is the time to start. With each new council, all of council’s policies are reviewed and that process has commenced for this newly-elected council. In stages, the current policies are placed on public exhibition and the community is given anywhere from 28 to 42 days to make a submission on the policies exhibited. There are presently 10 policies on exhibition, including those concerning the Code of Conduct (of council officials), Aged Care, Councillors’ Expenses and Facilities and Local Orders. You can have a say on these policies, through making submissions and by lobbying any – or all - of your nine representatives. You may, however, find it a bit of a challenge in making sense of some of these policy documents. For example, the Code of Conduct Policy does not explicitly state what the policy is. In a fashion, it refers to the policy’s “purpose”, its “aims”, etc. but not to the central fact that our council has adopted the Office of Local Government’s (OLG) Model Code of Conduct – until page 4 of the document, under the heading of “Implementation”. And then it goes on to present a rather piecemeal selection of excerpts from the Model Code; and in the case of “Gifts and Benefits”, omitting reference to “immediate family members”. So, a close study is required. Significantly, the community is not actually being presented with or being asked to comment on Council’s Code of Conduct – being the OLG’s Model Code – but simply to comment on the Code of Conduct Policy. Sub-section 440 (7) of The Local Government Act 1993 (LGA) requires that “A council must, within 12 months after each ordinary election, review its adopted code and make such adjustments as it considers appropriate and as are consistent with this section.” So, an opportunity to review the Code itself may be presented to the community at some time in the future (before 10 September 2017) – though no reference to this requirement appears within the Policy document.
As far as meeting agendas are concerned, there have been many items dealt with in these first four meetings and we can expect a big agenda for the last meeting on 13 December (available on the net from Wednesday 5 December). If things go according to the advertised schedule, we can expect to see the Citizens’ Jury’s report to councillors included on the agenda, in which it will be making recommendations to council on Council’s Delivery Plan for 2017 -2021: on how to best spend council’s yearly $100 million of available funds over the next four years. The Citizens’ Jury has been a controversial issue and so it will be very interesting to see just what the recommendations are and what council will do with them. Council is under no obligation to adopt any of the recommendations of the Citizens’ Jury though the information on the Citizens’ Jury, on council’s website, mysteriously advises that “It is the intention of Council to implement as many of the Jury’s recommendations as possible“. In fact, council has not resolved to do this – nor has this council resolved to do anything as far as the Citizens’ Jury is concerned - and so one can only wonder what the source of this statement is.
The many matters dealt with by councillors to date can be seen from the agendas to the meetings but there is one in particular that caught my eye: The General Manager’s Performance Review Panel. You will see that this important item was a little lost in amongst the many items listed under the heading Council Committees and External Bodies (page 22 of the 11 October agenda). Who would have thought that the proposed panel charged with reviewing the General Manager’s performance might be found there? It requires a keen eye to spot it. In my view, it is a matter of such importance that it should have been dealt with as a separate agenda item altogether.
You will see that it was recommended that the panel be comprised of the Mayor, Deputy Mayor, a councillor selected by council and possibly another, according to the General Manager’s recommendation. I made a presentation to council at the meeting and expressed objection to the proposed composition. In the event, a decision by councillors was deferred and is yet to be made. Here is the submitted, written version of my presentation:
Public Forum 11 October 2016 – Peter Cormick
Item GMR16/026 Council Committees and External Bodies
I wish to address the matter of the recommended composition of the General Manager’s Performance Review Panel. The recommendation is that the panel be comprised of the Mayor, Deputy Mayor, another councillor and possibly another still, nominated by the General Manager. That is, a panel of 3 or 4 members from the available 9 councillors.
Councillors’ statutory obligations
In considering whether the recommended composition best serves the community – and that is surely the aim of any of council’s actions - the best starting point is, I suggest, section 232 of the LGA, which sets out “the role of a councillor”. This recently amended section of the Act requires each councillor to be “accountable to the local community for the performance of the council.” But how can each councillor and the governing body as a whole, best meet this requirement of accountability? Clearly, it is best met by monitoring and adjusting as necessary, the performance of council. The question then becomes: How can this monitoring be best done?
The General Manager and the performance of council
You will have no doubt been presented with the publication titled Guidelines for the Appointment & Oversight of General Managers, issued by the then Division of Local Government, in July 2011 – and which is still current. They are guidelines issued pursuant to section 23A of the LGA. The significance of reference to this section of the Act, as you know, is that “A council must take any relevant guidelines under this section into consideration before exercising any of its functions.”
At the commencement of these guidelines, we are told that “The position of general manager is pivotal in a council. It is the interface between the governing body comprised of elected councillors, which sets the strategy and monitors the performance of the council, and the administrative body of the council, headed by the general manager, which implements the decisions of the governing body”. Again, we see reference to the need for councillors, individually and together, to monitor the performance of council. Clearly, this task will involve the monitoring of the performance of the General Manager, the person who oversees council’s operations.
The guidelines then provide advice on the establishment of a performance review panel and on its composition – being just as recommended to councillors today: namely the Mayor, Deputy Mayor, another councillor nominated by council and a councillor nominated by the general manager. As already stated, council is obliged to consider this advice, but it is under no obligation to adopt it. And then the guidelines state that “The panel should report back to the governing body of council in a closed session the findings and recommendations of its performance review ... [and then, significantly, states that] This should not be an opportunity to debate the results ...”. In other words, any of the councillors excluded from the review panel – and that would be the majority of you - who wish to discuss any objections that you might have to the findings, ought not to do so! This is what the OLG advises. Of course, the LGA’s requirements prevail over such advice. And, to emphasis the point, the Act holds each and every councillor accountable, to the community, for the performance of the council – not just those councillors who might be on the review panel.
The options – as I see them
Option 1. You can vote in support of the recommendation, to limit the number on the panel to 3 or 4. If you do, then you will be excluding between 5 or 6 councillors from being directly involved in the review of the General Manager’s performance. I contend that such exclusion would frustrate, if not conflict with, the requirements of section 232 of the Act, as it applies to individual councillors; or
Option 2. You can vote to allow any councillor who wishes to be on the panel to do so. It may well be that there are councillors who feel that they can fulfil their statutory duties without directly communicating with the General Manager in the course of the review; or
Option 3. You can vote to defer your decision. This would allow you the opportunity to investigate the issues I have raised here.
Request: I would be grateful for a copy of the General Manager’s Performance Criteria.
As can be seen, at the meeting I asked for a copy of the General Manager’s performance criteria but have since been advised that the information is not available, on the grounds that it is personal information, which forms part of the GM’s contract. Naturally, given that there is substantial public interest in this type of (generic) information, I will be pursing this matter – and keep you informed of the progress. Peter Cormick