By Kody Cook, Journalist, Council Magazine

Australians expect their elected officials and representatives to uphold a standard of integrity in their behaviour and to always act in the best interests of those they represent. Unfortunately, a lack of behavioural standards is leaving some ratepayers disappointed with their councillors, which is why planned reforms in Victoria are looking to restore trust by holding local government representatives accountable for their actions.

In November 2023, it was announced that the Victorian Government is planning to introduce new legislation which will expand and elevate governance, integrity and behavioural standards for councillors across the state. The announcement was made by Victorian Minister for Local Government, Melissa Horne, who said that Victorians rightly have high expectations of their local councillors and that these changes will ensure residents can have confidence their best interests are being served.

VLGA CEO Kathryn Arndt

“Having a model code of conduct and mandatory training makes sense and extends reforms we introduced before the last council elections. They will help encourage quality candidates to come forward for the 2024 polls,” Minister Horne said. Council Magazine had the opportunity to interview the Victorian Local Governance Association (VLGA) CEO, Kathryn Arndt, regarding the purpose of the planned changes and what brought them about.

Ms Arndt explained that the planned changes to the Local Government Act 2020 stem from both the Victorian governments’ Local Government Culture Project of 2021, which saw more than 140 submissions on the conduct of councils and councillors, and Operation Sandon and those broader recommendations of the Independent Broad-based Anti-Corruption Commission (IBAC) to improve governance and build public trust in local councils and councillors.

These efforts came about after local government leaders and members of the community called for action because confidence in local government in some areas had suffered due to poor councillor behaviour and ineffective performance.

Between January 2023 and the announcement of the reforms in November, almost 30 councillors resigned, while municipal monitors were appointed as an urgent intervention to protect local communities eight times in the 18 months before the announcement – at Glenelg, Strathbogie (twice), Horsham, Darebin, Wodonga, Geelong and Yarra. Moira Shire Council was dismissed and replaced with administrators.

Planned changes

The State Government undertook a consultation process with the sector about the proposed reforms, which closed on 29 February 2024. Legislation is planned to be introduced in the first quarter of 2024. The amendments to the Local Government Act 2020 will address recommendations made by integrity bodies such as the IBAC and the Chief Municipal Inspector.

The planned reforms are set to introduce mandatory training for elected representatives, a uniform councillor code of conduct and strengthened powers for the Victorian Minister for Local Government to address councillor conduct. The Local Government Act 2020 mandates induction training for new councillors and the changes will take this focus on education and training further with a requirement for ongoing training for councillors.

Ms Arndt said that the requirement for ongoing councillor training and professional development is a positive change. “The VLGA’s own training and professional development programs are always in high demand by councillors,” Ms Arndt said. “If this training is to become mandatory however, it should not be at the cost of local services. There must be adequate resourcing and financial support for councils and approved high-quality training providers like the VLGA, who understand local governance and relevant professional development for councillors.

“The VLGA is the only organisation dedicated to supporting councillors on good governance, integrity and performance issues in their elected roles. “We deliver on-demand training, professional development programs and run a councillor support service. We speak to councillors daily about their challenges and frustrations and we support them to deliver positive outcomes for their local communities through high performance leadership and effective governance.”

The State Government has said that good governance is critical to ensure councils make sound decisions and deliver the services their communities need, and that expanded powers to address councillor misconduct will discourage poor behaviour. Reforms will give the Minister for Local Government the ability to suspend or disqualify individual councillors found to have created a risk to health and safety or prevented the council from performing its function. The Chief Municipal Inspector will also have enhanced powers, including the ability to issue infringement notices.

In regard to the proposed reform providing the Minister for Local Government with the power to remove an individual councillor, Ms Arndt said that the VLGA has approached our submission to the reform consultation paper on the assumption that any reforms that may arise need to be set within the current policy framework that recognises local government as a democratic institution and respects the role of Councillors as representatives of their constituents.

“Generally speaking, an elected official ought only be suspended or disqualified by the decision of a judicial or quasi-judicial body, where the rules of natural justice apply. Disqualification or suspension of an elected official of one arm of government at the discretion of an elected official of another arm of government may be problematic for democratic principles.”

“With recent Council electoral structure review outcomes generally supporting single member Council wards, an extended suspension of a Councillor for a period of up to 12 months will result in a lack of local representation for ward constituents.” The VLGA believes that this potential sanction of suspension or disqualification should be available only to a court, tribunal, or Councillor Conduct Panel.

A model code of conduct for councillors with tougher sanctions for misconduct is also set to provide a uniform set of standards and reduce the regulatory burden on councils which will no longer need to establish their own codes. Ms Arndt said that when it comes to governance areas, such as a code of conduct, consistency across the sector is a good thing – provided local councils are still able to reflect local community issues and build on a standardised model of conduct.

“For example, some local councils have their own codes of conduct in place which limit councillor contact with lobbyists and property developers. We still want to be able to embed community sentiment in the codes of conduct guiding our councillors.” However, there are elements of this proposal that the VLGA believes require clarification.

The intent of the language used in the consultation paper “and any other governance matters to be prescribed by the regulations” requires clarification and some indication of the proposed content of these other model documents should be provided to the sector for consultation and comment.

Kathryn Arndt alongside the VLGA President Denise Massoud, Victorian Minister for Local Government Melissa Horne and various Mayors and Councillors from around Victoria at the 2023 Fasttrack event, for the VLGA’s signature Councillor Leadership day.

Expected outcomes and next steps

Ms Arndt said that it will remain to be seen how these changes will impact community confidence. “Our core priority is to ensure that the voices and opinions of our members are appropriately consulted with as changes are considered.

We know the community has high expectations of our councillors; to make good decisions based on community needs and to govern their organisations with integrity, and we agree the core principles of these reforms are solid – to reinvigorate community trust in our membership. A good test of community confidence will be the upcoming local government elections in October of this year.

Ms Arndt said that the VLGA’s priority is both supporting its membership to maintain their high standards in local government and continuing to engage with the Victorian Government as consultation methods for these proposed reforms are announced. “As councils are more closely connected to the community than any other level of government, we are uniquely positioned at the coalface level to guide the Victorian Government on reforms, to ensure they are both long-lasting and impactful for both our membership and the broader Victorian community.”

The Victorian Government will continue to consult with the sector in the coming weeks about the development of the regulations for the councillor model code of conduct and mandatory training, the legislation for which is planned to be finalised and introduced before the end of the first quarter.

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