From the Council Chamber – by Peter Cormick [Some light holiday reading – in between meetings]
Roles and responsibilities
The council chamber is where your representatives meet and conduct their business - which is, of course, your business, conducted on your behalf. It is the only portal available to the community into the workings of council - and therefore council’s meetings warrant your close attention.
As you will have seen on the live streaming or video archives, not only are there our nine representatives in the chamber (when they are all in attendance) when council meets but there are also members of staff present. While only the General Manager is entitled to attend, other senior staff also attend, for the purpose of being available to answer questions that might be asked by councillors, on whatever matter is under discussion. But where and how do all these participants fit into our local government? What is our council, our mayor and the other councillors and the general manager actually required to do – according to the law? We all have our own ideas on what they should be doing but what does the relevant legislation have to say on it? And are the ‘players’ aware of just what they are meant to be doing? That is a valid and important question on its own: are they aware?
Being only 3 months into the 4 year job, our new councillors are still on a very steep learning curve, in spite of the assistance they have already received – and will continue receiving - by way of workshops and other forms of ongoing professional development – including through their reference to (and absorption of) the Councillor Handbook.
The new councillors might well have some advantage over the returning ones in that they are clean slates, on which the recent amendments to the Local Government Act 1993 (LGA) might be more easily received. The Explanatory Notes on these changes (produced prior to the changes having been made) make for interesting, if not provocative, reading - so too the accompanying tabular comparison of a number of pertinent sections of the LGA, of before and after the amendments, that I have compiled. I will refer to this presentation as The Table in the commentary below.
Above: Recent amendments to the Local Government Act 1993 (LGA) have re-defined certain roles and responsibilities of a council, the mayor,councillors – both individually and collectively (as the governing body) – and the general manager, and their respective relationships. Some of the more notable amendments are presented in the table at this link.
Council’s role: Council’s charter is no more So, what is a local council meant to do, according to the law? In particular, what should our council be doing? Prior to 22 September 2016, it was very clear just what it should be doing. As you will see from The Table, its Charter was set out at section 8 of the LGA and was prescriptive, stating at the outset that a council is: to provide directly or on behalf of other levels of government, after due consultation, adequate, equitable and appropriate services and facilities for the community and to ensure that those services and facilities are managed efficiently and effectively.
The Charter has been removed and replaced by a long series of motherhood statements (described by those responsible as “clear and simple language”) - spread over sections 8 (Object of principles), - 8A (Guiding principles for councils), - 8B (Principles of sound financial management) and - 8C (Integrated planning and reporting principles that apply to councils). As the Explanatory Notes make clear, the new approach is to provide ‘guidance’ and ‘principles’, not requirements or commitments: to “reflect the role of councils in enabling outcomes ... rather than prescribe outcomes”. So, for example, the closest that the amendments come to requiring councils to provide services and facilities and to manage them efficiently and effectively, is at sub-sections 8A (b),(e) and (f):
Councils should plan strategically, using the integrated planning and reporting framework, for the provision of effective and efficient services and regulation to meet the diverse needs of the local community.
Councils should manage lands and other assets so that current and future local community needs can be met in an affordable way.
Councils should work with others to secure appropriate services for local community needs.
The previous Charter also required council to promote and to provide and plan for the needs of children. That has been removed. So too the requirement to promote social justice principles of equity, access, participation and rights. Councils are now asked to simply “consider” rather than be required to “promote” these principles. You will also see from The Table that there is no longer a requirement for councils to properly manage, develop, protect, restore, enhance and conserve the environment of the area for which it is responsible, in a manner that is consistent with and promotes the principles of ecologically sustainable development. They are now advised that they should consider the principles of ecologically sustainable development. And there is no longer a requirement for councils to raise funds for local purposes by the fair imposition of rates, charges and fees. There is much more that can be said about the removal of the Charter and its replacement but it would go on for longer than most could bear! If you are keen to see just where the devil is in the detail, have a good look at The Table I have provided.
The mayor’s role:
While the amendments to the LGA have made life a whole lot less onerous for councils as a whole – with requirements now watered down to guidelines and principles – they have placed substantially more requirements on the mayor and the councillors. You will see from The Table that with section 226 of the LGA - Role of mayor – that there has been an extensive, even onerous list of requirements placed on the mayor, since 22 September 2016. Amongst the many requirements, the mayor is now, for the first time, specifically required:
to advance community cohesion and promote civic awareness;
to ensure the timely development and adoption of the strategic plans, programs and policies of the council;
to advise, consult with and provide strategic direction to the general manager in relation to the implementation of the strategic plans and policies of the council; and
in consultation with the councillors, to lead performance appraisals of the general manager
The role of individual councillors and the governing body:
Councillors as a group – and that includes the mayor of course – is referred to as the ‘governing body’ of council. Until 22 September 2016, the role of the governing body was pretty simple – a one-liner: to direct and control the affairs of the council in accordance with this Act. The role of the governing body is now quite extensive and has taken from some of the ‘role requirements’ of individual councillors, as they were prior to 22 September. So, for example, where previously individual councillors were required to direct and control the affairs of council and to review the performance of council and its delivery of services, those duties are now the responsibilities of the ‘collective’ – the governing body. And there are further requirements placed on the governing body that have not previously been assigned to councillors, such as:
to determine ... a rating revenue policy;
to determine the senior staff positions within the organisation structure of the council; and
to determine the process for appointment of the general manager by the council and to monitor the general manager’s performance.
The issue of the monitoring of the performance of the general manager is of prime importance and has already come up before this new council and I will be giving it special attention in the future. As I have previously advised, I have informally sought access to the performance criteria against which the GM’s performance is assessed. My request has been refused (on the ground that the information is personal) and so I will be making a formal request in the near future and keep Beagle readers informed of the progress of my application. There is clearly an overriding public interest in the community knowing just what criteria the GM’s performance is assessed against – and the mechanism by which the assessment takes place. What can there be to hide? And, of relevance, the GM’s remuneration package of $283,669 (in 2015-16) is paid for by the community. (Refer to page 77 of Council’s Annual Report for 2015-16 and for details of other senior staff salaries.) The right to know could not be clearer.
Overall, with these amendments to the LGA, much more responsibility – and more authority – has been placed in the hands of the mayor and councillors than previously existed. Councillors certainly have a lot to live up to - with many long hours of study and personal application ahead of them – if they are to do their job properly! With these increased responsibilities, the newly created oath or affirmation they each took will no doubt be brought to their attention from time to time. And I have no doubt that more than one or two of the new ones didn’t have – and others for some time haven’t had - a clue about what the job entails. But there are already a few new performers emerging from the pack. We’ll keep an eye on them – and the others – to see just who has the ability and stamina and is able to represent the best interests of the community for the duration of their term.
On the next occasion I intend addressing the role of the general manager and the delegation of certain of council’s functions to the general manager. Peter Cormick