When it came to the debate today on whether a newly elected Councilor would be granted a Leave of Absence for four Council meetings there wasn't any. The meetings of 25 July 2017, 8 August 2017, 12 September 2017 and 26 September 2017 will be missed by Councillor Nathan In accordance with Section 234 (1)(d i and ii) of the Local Government Act, a councillor must apply for leave of absence if such councillor is absent from three consecutive ordinary meetings of council. In accordance with Section 3.5 of Council’s Code of Meeting Practice, the request for leave of absence by a Councillor from a meeting should be made in writing to the General Manager. Prior to the Councillor's discussion of granting the Leave of Absence a Public Forum presenter offered the following for their consideration PUBLIC FORUM PRESENTATION
27 JUNE 2017
My name is Jim Bright and I am a resident of Narooma.
On today's agenda is a recommendation from the General Manager for you to grant leave of absence to Clr Nathan for the next four council meetings after today's meeting. This would mean that Clr Nathan would not be at another council meeting until the first meeting in October.
I note that the recommendation that is contained in the agenda papers contains no details of the councillor's reasons for her proposed absence from council meetings and no explanation by the General Manager for her recommendation that you should approve the councillor's application.
As you might recall, there was considerable reporting in the local newspapers in September and October of last year of suggestions by the newly elected Clr Nathan that she might possibly continue to spend considerable periods of time in France each year despite having being elected as a councillor for the next four years at last year's council elections.
I will therefore take the liberty of assuming for the moment that this is the reason for this application for leave for an extended period.
There is no doubt that councillors have the power under the Local Government Act to grant such an application. So, on this occasion at least, the question is not “can you legally do this” but “should you do it”.
Given the substantial period of the proposed absence and given the public's existing knowledge of the situation, there would seem to be no basis at all for arguing that the reasons for the application should not be contained in the official report that is now before you and the community. I would therefore put it to you that you should not be taking a formal decision on this matter unless those details are formally provided to you.
In relation to the question of whether you should grant the application, hopefully the General Manager will have, by now, brought your attention to the relevant guidance which is available from the Office of Local Government. That guidance is contained in section 4.1.3 (page 27) of the 'Meetings Practice Note (Practice Note No. 16)' of August 2009.
For your convenience, and for the information of the general community, I will quote the following key parts of that particular guideline.
“Leave of absence may be granted to councillors at the discretion of the council (s.234(1)(d) of the Act). It is expected that you will attend all council and relevant committee meetings. However it is acknowledged that sometimes there are good reasons why you may miss a meeting.” (The underlining is mine.)
“It would be wise to make the application in writing and state the reasons for the leave so that the council may consider it.”
“You should not assume that the council will grant you leave. The council has discretion whether or not to grant a leave of absence. It is expected in considering such an application, the council will act reasonably given that there are consequences for failing to attend council meetings. There may also be consequences in terms of the public's perception of both the council and the applicant.”
So it's quite clear that all councillors are expected to attend all council meetings unless there is a “good reason” for not doing so. The relevant section of the LG Act clearly indicates that approval of an absence is discretionary and implicit in the existence of a discretion is that there will be some reasons that would not be acceptable.
So what types of reasons could be acceptable. In this quest, the Australian framework of employment conditions and entitlements probably provides a general guide to the types of paid absences that might be regarded as reasonable.
Absences such as for recreation and annual holidays are well met for our councillors with the scheduled two month break that occurs between early December and early February as well as the two shorter breaks for part of July and part of August. In total, this is of course well ahead of contemporary standard of around four weeks.
Other absences due to illness, medical treatment, child minding, caring responsibilities and other short unavoidable matters over which a councillor might not reasonable control would all seem to be situations in which it would be appropriate for the council to grant leave of absence.
In relation to the matter before you, if I was one of you, I would want the GM to establish if there is any level of precedence for this type and duration of approved absence. And if this particular application was to be approved, on what basis would any other councillor be knocked back for something similar?
Your responsibility today is to decide, in the public interest, whether an absence from now until until early October is appropriate. What might the reasonable community member believe is appropriate?
Of course, the LG Act does provide some degree of flexibility for a councillor to still choose, at their own discretion, to be absent for up to two consecutive meetings even without a “good reason”.
Given that this council's meeting program for 2017 has only one meeting scheduled in each of July and August, that situation would enable Clr Nathan still to be absent from the shire for a not insubstantial period from late June to early September.
This is is a decision that you need to make responsibly on behalf of the local community.