NOROC president and Lismore mayor Jenny Dowell has praised the NSW government for amendments to its dysfunctional councils’ legislation following last-minute consultation after complaints the Bill was being rushed.
‘I give credit to the minister and the government for delaying the introduction of this Bill to allow for some consultation, but it is still regrettable that there wasn’t adequate consultation before it got to that stage,’ she said.
Local government minister Don Page announced the passing of the NSW government’s early intervention legislation through parliament last week providing new powers to demand information from councils and issue performance orders and suspensions.
Many thought the legislation was rushed, prompting the government to write to all mayors seeking their feedback on the Bill.
‘I wrote a submission and I’m very pleased that it looks like the wishes of the local government body were listened to and there have been a few modifications,’ Cr Dowell said.
‘My main points were about defining what a dysfunctional council actually meant, and also building into it a period of notice prior to the minister suspending a council.
‘This Bill came up rather quickly. It would have been better had there been more notice so that groups of councils such as NOROC could have put in a submission. In the end the NSW Division of Local Government took carriage of it and contacted each of the councils individually for us to have a say, so the outcome was good but the process could have been a bit better.
‘The amendments from councils were really just removing the provision in the Bill which would have made councils totally accountable to the minister; requiring the minister now to give notice of intention to extend a period of suspension; and also prohibiting any changes to a council boundary while it is suspended.
‘So there are some reassurances built in there, though there’s still some discretion. There are some checks and balances that meet with everyone’s approval.’
The minister was keen to point out that his government was the first in 17 years not to sack a council, a statistic he hoped to maintain with the new legislation.
‘The laws in place for dealing with dysfunctional councils were inadequate and there were many voices, including the auditor general, calling for action,’ Mr Page said.
‘The public frequently calls for government action when a council is failing. Councils themselves have said they want to put a stop to behaviour that tarnishes the reputation of local government and stops councils delivering for their communities.’
Cr Dowell agreed, congratulating Mr Page for putting in some checks and balances, and some, ‘clear processes on how to deal with a council that was perhaps misbehaving.’
‘I think all of us who can remember what happened in the Tweed, even disregarding the causes of that dysfunction, the way in which a council was dismissed left everyone with concern about the process,’ she said.
(In 2005, the State government sacked Tweed Council after an independent inquiry headed by Professor Maurice Daly found the majority faction of councillors were the ‘puppets’ of developers who had bankrolled their election campaigns. The government then appointed administrators for three years.)
Mr Page said the Local Government Amendment (Early Intervention) Bill 2013 provided an important set of tools to ensure that, ‘dysfunction was dealt with early and that the democratic leadership of communities was retained.’
‘By being able to issue Performance Improvement Orders, problems will be corrected early and the need for public inquiries and the subsequent dismissal of a council after a long period of dysfunction will become much less likely,’ Mr Page said.
He added that the new laws aimed to improve the performance of councils in NSW by, ‘balancing measures to encourage councils to drive their own improvement with sanctions for failing to take action.’
Some of the key changes were: stronger powers to gather information from councils to identify dysfunction; new powers to issue a Performance Improvement Order; and new powers to suspend a council for up to three months, with an option to extend for a further three months if a Performance Improvement Order is ignored.
‘The government’s approach to addressing council dysfunction is to encourage councils to act voluntarily to fix the problem,’ Mr Page said.
‘These new powers provide a broader range of tools so that where the informal, voluntary approach fails, we can avoid the problem escalating to the point where the council risks being dismissed.’