By Holly Tancredi, Contributing Editor

Every job has its challenges, but every worker has the right to a safe, healthy workplace. For councils, the exceptional cases of poor-behaving councillors negatively impact workplace culture, decision-making, and the health and safety of employees. With Council Standards of Conduct and the Local Government Act now blurring how to report poor behaviour and inadequate ramifications of misconduct, Local Government Professionals (LGPro) have consulted to submit a case report on councillor conduct to the Victorian Minister for Local Government.

Council Magazine spoke to LGPro President, Liana Thompson, who has 25 years in local government, and is currently Director City Life at Wyndham City Council. Ms Thompson said that while it’s only a very small portion of councillors behaving badly, when one’s poor behaviour goes unreported or unreprimanded, it has a ripple-effect on the rest of council and its community.

“There were a lot of things feeding into the poor behaviour, but the changes in the Local Government Act seemed to exacerbate an outcome where councillors were behaving poorly to each other and then the bar to actually take it through a complaint process was pretty high,” Ms Thompson said.

Code of conduct review restraints

The LGPro case to the Victorian Minister for Local Government, Melissa Horne, Councillor Conduct: the case for legislative reform, highlighted several current issues with the Standards of Conduct. This includes the “high level of generality”, the “limited insight into the conduct expected of Councillors” and “lack of appropriate context” within the Standards.

The case also spoke in-depth regarding the inadequate or “disproportionately light” penalties for proven misconduct and the lengthy reporting process itself. The Councillor Conduct review called the application process “wholly unsatisfactory”, “far from user-friendly” and “frustrating and unrewarding”.

The LGPro case said the vagueness meant no breaches of Standards of Conduct were found when one councillor called another councillor a “bloody moron”, and no breach was found when a councillor used “colourful” and “inappropriate” language1 to a member of the community.

The complaint process can take anywhere from six to 12 months for it to be seen by the Local Government Inspectorate or for any penalties to be administered (if any misconduct was found at all). Councillors said this often left them deterred rather than encouraged to submit an application.

The long timeframe means that arbiters have been reported to deny following through a complaint application due to too much time passing. This means poor councillor behaviour continues unreprimanded.

Councillors also stated the poor behaviour they were attempting to resolve and penalise would continue throughout the application and review process, leaving themselves “without remedy when a Councillor acts inappropriately towards them”. Ms Thompson said the poor complaint process has created unpleasant situations.

“The process has been difficult for the elected representatives, but also difficult for council officers to operate in that environment as well,” Ms Thompson said.

“It is a councillor’s job to make decisions. When the conversations and the debate don’t happen in a respectful way or people don’t feel able to participate fully, it has an impact on good decision making. It has an impact on the reputation of the council because people are looking from the community, and are watching how things are running. It has an impact on officers and just having free, frank conversations with councillors about policy matters.”

Health and safety requirements

The current legislative definitions of misconduct and serious and gross misconduct hinder and restrict positive progress and leave council Chief Executive Officers (CEO) unsupported in addressing poor behaviour, and sometimes unable to fulfil their occupational health and safety obligations to their employees.

Reflecting on her long experience in local government, Ms Thompson has seen the negative effects of the poor systems first-hand.

“It’s hard to turn up every week and participate at your best in a negative workplace environment,” Ms Thompson said.

“We had people who were on stress leave. We had people who could not go to functions for fear of seeing one of the elected representatives there because that elected representative had abused them in public. We had elected representatives who would stand up in council meetings and berate council officers.

“It is not a workplace where you can give your best fearless and frank advice as an officer. The impact on you and your career, your reputation, your mental health; it’s really significant.”

“It is a Councillor’s job to make decisions. When the conversations and the debate don’t happen in a respectful way or people don’t feel able to participate fully, it has an impact on good decision making. It has an impact on the reputation of the council because people are looking from the community, and are watching how things are running. It has an impact on officers and just having free, frank conversations with councillors about policy matters.” 

Reforming the legislation

To combat the long-standing issue of councillor misconduct and poor review processes, LGPro have worked to advocate for legislative reform and ensure council CEOs have the legal authority to influence Councillor misbehaviour and better support the health and safety of the councillors.

The LGPro case goes further into potential review outcomes, including reprimands, apologies, suspension and other penalties. A new process, with relevant detail, context and a streamlined review of councillor misconduct would support not only a positive and safe workplace, but benefit the future of councils.

“We want a really strong participatory democracy system and that’s really important. Having that robustness from our elected representatives is important, but there has to be consequences for those few people who decide to behave badly,” Ms Thompson said.

Ms Thompson said the poor behaviour, often publicised across media platforms, narrows the representation of and the ability for local governments to flourish. Ms Thompson also expressed the concern that the spreading of bad behaviour would restrict the likelihood of good councillors staying for longer, as well as impede future candidates.

“Like any sort of system where people don’t feel able to speak out, we might lose really good councillors and good candidates for future elections,” Ms Thompson said.

“How do we get more diversity onto our councils when candidates are looking at this behaviour as an environment to work in? We really want to encourage women to put up their hand to be councillors.

“We want to have different voices at the table because we want to make sure that we are building communities for all, and you can’t build communities for all if you’ve only got a very narrow band.”

Supporting council futures

News of bad behaviour spreads faster than good, and can even negatively affect people continuing or wanting to start their local government careers.

“These poor examples (of councillor behaviour) are so obvious and people think that that’s widespread and that’s certainly not the case.

“The essence is, poor councillor behaviour undermines the role of the elected representatives. “We’ve got a lot of diverse people in every local government area in Victoria. I want to see that reflection and the ability for people to determine that local government is a great place for them to be able to make a contribution to their community and not to be fearful of that.”

Ms Thompson said that while she understood the timeframe for any changes to the process to be implemented could reach into 2024, June’s future election period would be a good marker.

“Any changes to the system by June 2024 would enable any person who was thinking of putting up their hand to be a candidate in upcoming elections to do so, understanding that the Act is there to support them and the system – if something went awry – was there to back them up.”

LGPro are dedicated in their advocacy for the legislative reform to be considered and help make councils safer, more encouraging and supportive places to work and to provide for their local community.

“There’s a shared vision that local government is a really important part of a governance framework, and we want to make sure that it is a safe space for people to participate; for councils to make good decisions, and that we can also get really great candidates who represent community to be able to participate also in councils.”

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