Local Government Reform Area 3 – a positive change in the main

The State Government’s Local Government Reform Area 3, one of 4 reform areas, focuses on efficient and transparent representation.

 

This Reform Area attempts to provide a range of proposals aimed at improving the local government elections in South Australia.

 

During the earlier call for reform ideas, the most popular idea received was to introduce electronic—online—voting for councils.

 

Disturbingly there is no proposal to consider this. The government is telling us that technical difficulties are too great at this time. I would however appreciate at least new legislation recognising the potential future role for electronic voting.

 

As with my blog posts on the other reform areas I agree with many (if not most) of the recommendations.

 

I agree with their proposal NOT to move to compulsory voting. Their reasoning is that enforcing compulsory voting in a postal voting system is difficult and resource intensive. My reasoning is compulsory voting, I believe, will see the potential intrusion of the political parties into local government. This is indeed the case where compulsory voting exists in the eastern states.

I also agree with the proposal to avoid local government elections being in the same calendar year as state government elections. Being in the same year can invite voter fatigue. Of note is the next election year will be 2022. As the federal government is due for election also in that year (as part of their 3 year cycle) By the time our elections come round, there will surely be voter fatigue.

I support the re-introduce the automatic enrolment of property franchise holders. Currently they have to painstakingly re-apply before each election.

Being independent, I absolutely agree with candidates having to confirm, at the time of announcing their candidacy, any affiliation with political parties. You deserve to know about any such political affiliation before you vote, not after. The same for donations received and whether or not a candidate lives in the Ward.

Candidates should, in today’s world, be provided with a choice of receiving a paper copy (as now) of the electoral role for their ward, or a digital copy of the roll. We are the only level of government where an electronic copy is denied.

The rest of the initiatives are pretty much administrative in nature. They will simply improve things without you necessarily seeing the benefit.

All in all, the recommendations in the State Government Local Government Reform Area 3, will bring about a better more transparent local government.

Lower Costs and Enhanced Financial Accountability for Local Government.

Lower costs and enhanced financial accountability for Local Government. A noble 2nd area of reform in the Government’s program of Local Government Reform.

 

The Government went to the people in March of last year with a promise to lower the cost of running local governments. A noble ambition.

Eleven recommendations have been put to you and I for comment. Many I don’t have a problem with.

Indeed, Unley already voluntarily does what is proposed in the first four recommendations. That includes having more independent members on the committee than elected members. It includes those independent members having due qualifications to sit on the committee. Furthermore, our committee is already charged as an audit and “risk” committee.

As a metropolitan Council we don’t have much trouble with doing this. I can imagine however regional councils may have trouble due to a lack of suitably qualified candidates.

 

What I do have a problem with is requiring the Auditor General to oversight of all Council Audits. 

 

This I see as one of those measures I noted in my first blog post of this series that will add to the cost of local government. Significantly.

The Auditor General has got powers of investigation over the industry already. Powers he can use at his discretion. Similarly, like the powers he used recently to oversee the workings of the Brownhill Creek Project.

To have oversight over all 68 councils each year is an overkill. The AG would have to resource this work. He would likely direct the work to the same organisations/people conducting the audits on behalf of councils now.

As the AG would be responsible for the work, he would have to oversee the work. This would require increased resourcing. This adds another layer of administration, which must add to the cost of reporting and therefore to the industry.

Doubts about the adequacy of some current or past auditing contracts would be better served by the Government setting up a register of accredited auditors. Councils can seek their auditor from this list. Restricting auditors to working more than a set number of successive years with a given council would also be worth considering.

Elected Member Conflict of Interest an Area in Need of Reform.

Elected member conflict of interest is the last of the areas of concern in the Government’s 1st Reform Area. I agree. It is absolutely an area in need of reform.

The ‘elected member conflict of interest’ model in the Local Government Act is unnecessarily complicated and confusing. As a result, many councillors do not participate in debates, when their expertise would be valuable.

I have seen this play out in the current council. I myself have felt compromised on occasion, unsure of whether I have a conflict or not. Worse yet, there is potential for a member to use conflict of interest as a way of avoiding voting on a contentious issue.

The rules around elected member conflict of interest are complex. They need simplifying. They need to recognise that elected members invariably will be members of other community organisations. Be that sporting clubs, service clubs, churches, neighbourhood watch or other like community based organisations.

Being a member of any such club should not in itself constitute a conflict. Often the aims of the organisation and council are the same. A conflict should therefore centre around the original intention of the act. That is that the elected member should not personally gain.

The current provisions also cloud the area of where you or your family may live as a potential conflict of interest. A member should be able to vote on matters relevant to their street or suburb. If they can’t then their immediate neighbours do not have  a voice in Council. This played out to the consternation of the community in the last Council as they dealt with the DPA in Unley Central.

If these rules are not simplified we run the very real risk of community minded people not running in future for Council. Given this, you have to ask the question. Who do we want running for Council.

The very same people I would have thought.

Matters of Integrity, behavioural Matters and the Role of the Mayor.

Matters of Integrity must be dealt with outside of Council and include consequences for breaches.

 

Who should deal with matters of integrity I am not sure. The Government is proposing some options.

No matter what or who it will come at a cost, just as we have now. It may not matter in the end, who.

It must however be an external body, and not handled in house.

What will matter is members who have committed a breach of integrity must be subject to swift investigation and include consequences for breaches.

We must avoid the lengthy process that occurs now. The consequences must be more than just being sanctioned as happens now.

 

Behavioural matters on the other hand are probably best dealt with in house.

 

The use of outside bodies to investigate and/or make recommendations needs to be questioned. I say that in as much as this potentially extends the time of investigation. Consequences, particularly for repeat offenders must be strengthened beyond the current practice of sanctioning.

It may be that a set of behavioural standard needs to be developed. I am not sure this can reasonably be achieved however. I question too, whether this is better achieved by each council rather than have another body establish it. The current Unley Council is working through, as we speak, a similar standard.

 

Greater Controls for the Mayor

 

The Government is right to consider this and seek yours and my input. It is a vexing question. Install powers like the Speaker has in the Government’s House of Assembly and Legislative Council.

The City of Unley has not, in my time, had behavioural issues warranting such action. It is hard to imagine therefore a need for such to be addressed in a new Local Government Act.

In my time as Deputy Mayor a couple of years back, I did hear from a few Mayors of the problems they faced in their chambers. Problems that, coupled with what we hear in the Media, lead me to believe implementing some Mayoral oversight may be appropriate.

It has the potential of course to be manipulated if the Mayor was one to take advantage of this power. Any change in legislation in his area needs to have inbuilt protections to guard therefore against misuse.

Stronger Council Member Capacity and Better Conduct

Stronger Council Member capacity and better Conduct is the first reform area in the Government’s Local Government Reform Agenda. This is indeed the area of highest priority.

 

Accordingly, stronger Council Member capacity and better conduct is the first area I also am giving thought to. As I noted in my blog post of 21 August I intend to convey my thoughts in each of the areas.

I agree with doing this. The Local Government industry agrees with doing this. Apart maybe from a handful of recalcitrant elected members, that is. Members who don’t see themselves as part of the elected body team struggle with this. Those who seemingly must be seen as fighting the establishment.

The media agrees with this and, with their prodding, so do you. Poor behaviour or conduct makes for the Medias view of good press. The press push any notion of poor behaviour on the part of elected members. With this being invariably the sole source of information you have on local government you obviously will likely share the same view.

What you might read in the press however is not the problem that needs to be addressed. It is separating integrity and behavioural issues, and the mechanisms that currently exist to deal with both.

The current rules are a vast improvement on the previous rules. They create confusion however. Members can be compelled by these rules to report perceived code of conduct breaches in fear of being in breach themselves.

The proposal being put forward aims to separate matters of integrity and behavioural matters. This is a must. Matters of integrity must always have robust procedures for handling, including penalties. On the other hand, behavioural matters can and should be dealt with differently.

 

The Government is proposing 20 recommendations.

 

Generally speaking I support all of these. Some with a degree of caution.

Please look to my next two blog posts as I look more closely at the difference between matters of integrity and behavioural matters. Look also for my thoughts on increasing the powers of the Mayor and (in a separate blog post) my thoughts on conflict of interest.

Local Government Reform Recommendations are a mixed bag.

Local Government Reform Recommendations are a mixed bag but fail to address the Government’s core objective. That is my in initial observation as I endeavour to review each of their 72 recommendations.

 

As I revealed in my last blog post the Government has made 72 recommendations to inform a new Local Government Act. 72 recommendations over 4 core reform areas. Some good, some not so good. I will respond to these in later blog posts.

Up front I have to say the recommendations fail the pub test though of achieving their core objective. They will not help to reduce the cost of local government providing the services they provide you. Indeed there is every potential they will increase the cost of providing those services.

They fail to look at what Local Government could look like in the future. They focus instead on fixing perceived legislative failings. A RACE TO THE BOTTOM AS IT WHERE. The reforms appear to have us spending MORE on governance than on roads and rubbish.

The recommendations, by and large all centre around governance, good governance. As a public utility spending public money (your money) it is important that good governance is a given. It is only natural that when reviewing procedures that the focus quickly turns to solving what is not working.

Not surprisingly, this leads to increasing governance measures. So naturally, any such exercise will potentially lead not to reduced costs but to increased costs. If that happens then the obvious question that must be asked is, am I getting good value for the extra $ I will see leave my pockets. Will it be worth it?

Not only are the reform recommendations are a mixed bag, they place potentially greater legislative restrictions on how we provide for our community. So, before you respond to the Governments invitation to contribute to the conversation, may I suggest you truly consider each recommendation and what it really means. If in doubt, look to my future posts on the reform recommendations.

Local Government Reform recommendations out for Public Consultation.

Local Government Reform recommendations are finally out for Public Consultation. The Government now wants to hear from you.

 

Local government reform and cutting the cost of local government was one of the election platforms of the State Government. They lost out to the Opposition and the Minor Parties with their blunt rate capping strategy. Notwithstanding this, they have been working hard on coming up with a suite of legislative changes that are aimed at a more efficient local government sector.

The local government industry has been in conversation with them since they took office. This continues the dialogue we had with the previous government. As I have blogged before, change is needed.

They now want to hear from you, and me.

With a view to introducing a draft bill in March next year the Minister has endorsed 72 recommendations. He is keen to know what we all think about these proposed changes. We all have until November 1st to provide our feedback.

If you have an interest in how local government might best serve you, here is perhaps your best chance. Go to the DPTI website and read through the recommendations.

If you have an opinion on any of them please make it known through their have your say. You can do this on the have your say page.

The 72 Local Government reform recommendations are spread over 4 areas.

The areas are as follows:

In summary, the proposals for reform are—

Reform Area 1 | Stronger Council Member Capacity and Better Conduct

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Reform Area 2 | Lower Costs and Enhanced Financial Accountability

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Reform Area 3 | Efficient and Transparent Local Government Representation

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Reform Area 4 | Simpler Regulation

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While this plays out they are also awaiting the report from the Productivity Commission. When their report is received it will sit alongside the survey results to inform their 1st draft bill.

I will be contributing, not just through the submission from Unley Council, but on my own volition. Watch out for future blogs for my thoughts.

Externally imposed Rate Capping is Dead

Labor warned us a day ago. They confirmed today that they would join the cross benches and vote the Government’s bill down. Externally imposed rate capping is dead as a result.

 

Rate Capping is DeadSo up go the headlines. Rate capping Dead. No, externally imposed rate capping is dead.

The fact of the matter is, the Government’s Rate Oversight Bill is doomed.  As I have explained before the Government’s bill was not so much about rate capping as it was about an external body setting a cap on council rates.

This is good news for the local government industry. With due respect to ESCOSA, the body earmarked to be the oversee-er, you (the local community) are the best overseer there can be in keeping rates down.

Good news in that the government has never been clear on what how the rates should be capped. We were led to believe by the CPI.

By doing so we were told the average rates would come down $ 500.00 . That claim by Minister Knoll was probably the trigger for the bill’s failure.

If this were true, with 26,000 rate payers, the City of Unley revenue of some $ 40m would reduce by  $ 13m. An extravagant claim by the Government. That Councils are so extravagant they can reduce their rate based revenue by a third. I defy anyone to shave $ 13m of the Unley budget and honestly believe that the Council would survive.

The bill is yet to be voted down in the Parliament however. Until the fat lady sings as it were.

All that aside, it is comforting to hear that the opposition appears to be heeding the call of our Local Government Association’s assessment of how the sector CAN be reformed. The sector can do with reforming. The Government could do well to jump on board and grab the agenda back.