Single wards, petitions to remove councillors: changes to the LG Act 2019

Jules

The Victorian State Government has announced proposed changes to the Local Government Act that will significantly alter Moonee Valley’s ward structure and allow petitions to remove councillors.

The changes will apply to all councils (with the exception of City of Melbourne for some changes).

The changes include:

A return to single wards

Voters being able to petition for the dismissal of a councillor

Councillors being disqualified for repeated serious misconduct

Non-resident property owners and company leasees having to register to be on Council electoral roll 

Candidates for elections being required to undertake mandatory training

Foreign campaign donations to be banned. Domestic donations capped at $1000. Gift disclosure threshold to drop to $250 (from $500)

New standards of conduct and arbitration processes for councillors

More details about some of these proposed changes are included below.

Previous changes to the Local Government Act were passed by the lower house in 2018, but had not passed the upper house prior to the 2018 state election. The new reforms will be added to the 2018 Bill and will be put afresh to both houses in 2019.

A summary of the changes is provided by the State Government:

Screen Shot 2019-06-30 at 12.36.28 pm

From Local Government Bill – A Reform Proposal, Link

The proposed changes are detailed here: https://www.localgovernment.vic.gov.au/our-programs/local-government-act-review and in a Discussion Paper.

You can provide feedback on the proposed reforms before 17 July by emailing: local.government@delwp.vic.gov.au with subject line ‘Local Government Bill 2019’.

Further details:

I’ve included some thoughts and details below on two proposals that appear most controversial. Details on all proposed changes can be found via the links above.

Return to single member wards

The proposed legislation will remove the option for councils to be made up of multi-member wards – like Moonee Valley currently is. Changes to councils would be fully implemented by 2024 council elections, with no intention to rush them through before next year’s elections.

Some councils, mainly large rural councils, will be allowed to be unsubdivided, but otherwise all councils will be divided into single member wards.

The state government says this will improve accountability and local representation.

Currently, the VEC undertakes regular reviews of the ward boundaries and can carve a municipality into a range of single and multi-member wards depending on population, geography and communities.

Moonee Valley had seven single member wards until 2008, when three wards, each with three councillors, were introduced.

For what it’s worth, my experience was that working as one of three councillors for a large area brought about a more cooperative approach. (I was first elected to Moonee Valley Council as the ward councillor for the single ward, Debney Ward, after the passing of Cr Lydia Kauzlaric. I was then one of three councillors elected to the Myrnong Ward (then ‘South Ward’) in 2008.)

As three ward councillors, we regularly met or spoke about ward issues, despite our different perspectives and political leanings.

Councillors have to advocate for their constituents to other councillors on many issues – large and small. I found it much more difficult as a single ward councillor to garner support from other councillors for ward issues. Working as a team of three councillors provided a better opportunity of making the case calmly, persuasively and effectively to other councillors.

I learnt the hard way that collegiate and respectful persuasion, or compromise, is more likely to bring about constructive decision making at local government.

A team of three councillors also gives residents options about whom they can contact on an issue. And it provides for a ‘Senate’ style proportional representation to bring about a more diverse Council.

Interestingly, gender is implicated. Thanks to the City of Melbourne’s Cr Rohan Leppert for his analysis of female councillors in different wards across Victoria (the most recent City of Yarra count back is not included):

Screen Shot 2019-06-30 at 1.32.31 pm

Supplied

While 33% of single member ward councillors are women, 41% of multi-member ward councillors are women (with one more recently at Yarra). It would be interesting to collect data on other measures of diversity.

It’s not clear what’s driving the mandated return to single member wards. There have always been different views on whether single or multi member wards are better, but there seems little explanation for eliminating multi-member wards altogether.

This is what MVCC could look like with single wards – thanks to Andrew Gunter for locating from the 2015 VEC review of ward boundaries.

65211116_2815172481857786_603551447501504512_n

Petitioning for the removal of councillors

I’m not going to pretend I entirely understand all of the current and proposed processes for dealing with misconduct of councillors.

There are currently various ways in which allegations of a breach of codes of conduct and the Local Government Act can be dealt with. These, and the new proposals seem convoluted and have been used with varying levels of effectiveness.

I’m going to focus on just one of the proposals for dealing with individual councillor behaviour – there are other measures detailed in the links above.

This particular change is quite extraordinary. The proposal is that voters in a municipality can petition for a Commission of Inquiry to disqualify a councillor for four years.

The steps in the process appear to be as follows:

  1. A voter in a municipality can apply to the VEC, and pay a fee, to start a petition to have a councillor disqualified. A 200 word statement with reasons is required.
  2. The Council can respond with a 200 word statement.
  3. Over 60 days, the petitioner must collect signatures from more than 25% of the total number of voters in the municipality.
  4. The petition is given to the Minister who verifies the eligibility of signatures with the VEC.
  5. The Minister then appoints a Commission of Inquiry who can, after hearing from the councillor, find that a councillor has significantly caused or contributed to:
    •  a failure by the council to provide good governance; or
    • a failure by the council to comply with a governance direction.

Additionally: “Where a Commission of Inquiry (appointed at the Minister’s discretion) makes a finding against a councillor, the Minister has the discretion to take appropriate action, including issue a governance direction, suspend or dismiss a Council. However, the Minister will not have the power to disqualify a Councillor under these circumstances.”

I can foresee some issues with this proposal, and that it may create an atmosphere of poor governance where threats or attempts to create petitions distract from the task of negotiating through complex issues. It could be easily misused for political purposes.

I can also see that having a process of dealing with dissatisfaction in a councillor’s performance could be valuable, and the threshold of 25% of voters in the municipality (about 30,000 in MVCC) is a high bar.

If all wards are single member, and voters can petition to remove a councillor, the VEC is certainly going to be busy!

What do you make of these proposals?

The proposed changes are detailed here: https://www.localgovernment.vic.gov.au/our-programs/local-government-act-review and in a Discussion Paper.

You can provide feedback on the proposed reforms before 17 July by emailing: local.government@delwp.vic.gov.au with subject line ‘Local Government Bill 2019’.

One thought on “Single wards, petitions to remove councillors: changes to the LG Act 2019

  1. I like the single councillor-ward option as it will ensure better local representation.The current approach could result in the 3 councillors living at one end of the ward, which would not be ideal for those living at the other end.

    Like

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