Radical changes that would see a ‘fundamental shift’ in power from local councils to the state government have been blasted by NSW’s peak representative body, Local Government NSW (LGNSW).
And despite the reforms being now on hold, the minister responsible for local government, local Ballina MP Don Page, was accused of failing to consult LGNSW at an urgent meeting held on March 15.
Additionally, detail on the Early Intervention Bill is vague and lacks detail, says joint president of LGNSW, Cr Keith Rhoades AFSM.
‘If passed, this legislation will undermine the democratic responsibilities of mayors and councils elected by residents and ratepayers by making councils responsible to the minister,’ he said. ‘The lack of detail and broad scope for the ‘Performance Improvement Order’ criteria is extremely worrying. The NSW government needs to give a clearer definition of what constitutes a ‘non-functioning’ and ‘noneffective’ council.’
Presently, councils can only be dismissed by the NSW governor if a public inquiry has been held and if the minister for local government recommends the dismissal.
There are 152 NSW local government bodies and Mr Page told parliament there were, ‘no less than 10 cases’ that cost millions in recent years.’ [Hansard transcription]
Additionally he says, ‘for the first time in 17 years, there are no councils under administration’.
So why is this such a priority? Mr Page told The Echo, ‘We
have had a small number of councils who have become dysfunctional and if this legislation had been in place the problems would have been sorted out.
‘For example last year a Sydney council had a group of councillors who kept walking out of the chamber so a quorum could not be maintained and matters could not be dealt with. This went on for many months!
‘There is currently no provision in the Local Government Act to deal with such a situation. By being able to nip problems in the bud there will be fewer dismissals in future.’
The power to suspend a whole council already exists in a number of other jurisdictions including Western Australia and Queensland Mr Page told parliament. [Hansard transcription, February 26, 2013]
He also referenced a recently published NSW auditor-general’s report, Monitoring Local Government, which, ‘also supported the need for government to have greater powers in tackling poor performance.’
While the lengthy 26 page amendment to the Local Government Act includes much detail on what powers the state wants, it’s sparse on how councils can appeal. One notable proposal is a ‘consultation period of not less than 21 days,’ for submissions.
And being suspended means a total lockout – there would be no pay or ‘use of council facilities’.
The amendment, available at http://bit.ly/XqZHKZ, would enable the minister for local government or the director general to demand documents
about the council, its operations or its activities; enable the minister to issue ‘performance improvement order’ to enable the minister to suspend a council for a period of up to three months or more,’ provide for the appointment of interim administrators; and to allow other minor and miscellaneous amendments.
As for the Local Government NSW claims of not being consulted, Mr Page told The Echo his department has had three consultations so far, ‘Two as minister with the presidents and one at officer level, with more to come. We are working through the issues and I have no intention of rushing the Bill through.
‘Effectively it’s on hold while we conclude our discussions, which have been very constructive.
‘LGNSW received the Bill on February 14 and raised no concerns until recently.
‘The processes provided before a performance improvement order are being worked through by the government and LGNSW.
‘Notwithstanding, the minister must give notice of a performance improvement order, state exactly what the problem is – not just to the council but publicly – and the council has 21 days to say what they are going to do to improve.
‘After saying what they propose to do they have time to carry out their plan. It is only if they refuse to solve the problem after all the requests etc have been made that a minister can consider the three month suspension option.
‘The things that could trigger an order to improve would
be non-compliance with state legislation etc or continual refusal to allow a quorum to be formed preventing council from operating.’
He also denies it’s a power grab. ‘To the contrary – it’s a sensible means of addressing problems before they get to a point where after a long period of dysfunction a public inquiry is ordered and a council is sacked, which is the only option now when dysfunction occurs.’
Shadow NSW Labor local government minister Sophie Cotsis told The Echo that what is being proposed is a ‘new section, not an amendment.’
She says she is ‘getting letters from residents about this, and the government should be worried.’
‘They tried to ram this through despite the act being reviewed,’ she said, referring to the Local Government Act 1993, a review of which is due in September.
She claims that 27 councils and mayors across Sydney have also discussed the proposals at a recent meeting. ‘They feel railroaded,’ she said.
Former mayor, independent state and federal member Ted Mack told Fairfax last week, ‘If the government thinks this approach is worthwhile, why stop at local government?
‘Why not give agencies such as the ombudsman, the auditor-general or the ICAC the power to issue ‘performance improvement orders’ against poorly performing state government ministers, with the authority to make recommendations to the governor that these ministers be dismissed if they fail to comply?’