"President's Update" sent on Tuesday, 14 April 2020
Dear friends and colleagues,
In emergencies, communities often quickly turn to their local council for information, support and guidance; and we have certainly seen that happen during this year’s crises. Councils play a critical role in emergency relief and recovery and I would like to thank you for your leadership and the support you have given your communities.
The current pandemic is unprecedented – we are in unchartered territory. We also need to remember that coronavirus came on top of bushfires and the devastation they caused for our communities. Those areas are still suffering the effects of the bushfires and were hoping for some relief when coronavirus impacted. You are not forgotten.
During both the bushfires and the coronavirus pandemic, the MAV has been working with and advocating to the State to ensure councils’ roles during emergencies are recognised and supported, and that councils can continue to deliver essential services to their communities.
The MAV has a statutory role in Victoria's emergency management arrangements and actively represents councils on several committees including the State Emergency Management Team and State Relief & Recovery Team. We are using these channels to raise and resolve issues of concern to councils.
Much of this information has been operational and MAV CEO Kerry Thompson has been sending regular updates to council CEOs. I have also been sending regular President Alerts to all councillors, Mayors and MAV representatives.
We continue to be actively engaged in discussions at the national level, regularly providing information and advice to the Australian Local Government Association for their advocacy to the Commonwealth. We also pass on this information to councils.
As I noted in my most recent opinion-editorial about how councils are supporting their communities through coronavirus, these really are testing times.
I would like to just briefly mention two governance issues related to the pandemic that we are working through and then focus on other matters of note.
We are continuing to both advocate to and work with the State to secure a change to the Local Government Act to enable councils to meet electronically. As noted in our media release and the many media interviews I have done on this topic, the legislative requirement for councillors to physically attend council meetings flies in the face of the current advice to remain at home and avoid any unnecessary travel.
Councils respect the advice of the Chief Health Officer and want to be able to do the right thing for the health of their community and their colleagues. Parliament needs to be recalled for the Local Government Act to be amended and we will continue to press for this change.
The timing of council elections later this year is also on our minds and we know it is a concern of many in local government. We have consulted with our members to inform the MAV’s position on this important issue and will be making a decision on our position and advocacy at the Special Board Meeting tomorrow (15 April 2020).
There are many significant challenges and consequences to consider in pursuing a deferral, and there are also significant issues to work through if the elections are to proceed in October this year. For example, the new Local Government Act provides for changes from multi-member wards to single member wards and also requires prospective councillors to undertake mandatory candidate training.
It is unclear if either of these reforms could be implemented in time given the current situation we all find ourselves in. We are also conscious that the council elections planned in NSW in September have been postponed for 12 months.
This pandemic affects us all, and those in leadership positions within local government are carrying heavy responsibilities. Any decision to defer the October 2020 general election would need to be made in the short term to provide certainty to all.
Zoom meeting of Mayors
We are all adapting to our changed environment and we recently held an online meeting for Mayors to provide an update on the current situation. There were 79 people online.
We heard from Emergency Services Commissioner Andrew Crisp, who outlined the line of command; MAV policy director Troy Edwards spoke about what MAV had been doing and local government’s role; MAV Deputy CEO and legal counsel Alison Lyon spoke about governance issues including remote meetings and elections; and MAV CEO Kerry Thompson spoke about economic sustainability, which included rates and rate relief. There was also an opportunity for questions.
Mayors expressed a desire to continue with online forums which we will arrange.
Local Government Act
The Local Government Act 2020 received Royal Assent on 24 March, marking a new era for the local government sector in Victoria.
We support most of the reforms on the basis that they should improve processes and outcomes for councils, residents and ratepayers. The nation-first inclusions of having sexual harassment classified as 'gross misconduct' and granting maternity and paternity leave without request are especially worthy of praise. We are pleased that, in line with our strong advocacy, the Commission of Inquiry reform did not proceed.
We also support the expansion of electoral structures available to rural councils but remain extremely concerned by mandated single-member wards for metropolitan councils and regional cities. There is no research or evidence-base to justify the shift towards single-member wards.
We advocated for the continued use of a flexible approach – including the use of un-subdivided municipalities, single-member wards and multi-member wards – to take into account local circumstances and communities of interest and this remains our position.
In February, we welcomed the release of the Victorian Government’s much-anticipated circular economy policy “Recycling Victoria”. Victoria’s recycling system remains fragile, so we welcome the State’s commitment to significant reform and investment.
In March 2019, the MAV launched our Rescue Our Recycling plan in which we identified five key actions each tier of government should take to build a strong and sustainable recycling system. We were delighted to see that each action we nominated for the State was incorporated into the Recycling Victoria policy. We are especially pleased that Victorians will finally get a container deposit scheme.
We look forward to continuing to work with the State on the implementation of this plan.
The last thing we want to see is a democratically elected council dismissed. The dismissals of both Casey City Council and Whittlesea City Council were disappointing for their communities and demonstrate how vital good governance is for local councils.
We have issued statements on both dismissals and appointed administrators will remain at both Casey and Whittlesea until the return of democratically elected councils in 2024.
A number of new councillors have been elected in by-elections and countbacks, and I would like to congratulate and welcome them all to the Victorian local government community:
- Cr Andrew Gibbs – Gannawarra Shire Council
- Cr Jenny Fawcett – Gannawarra Shire Council
- Cr Lawry Borgelt – Moorabool Shire Council
- Cr Robert Minty – Borough of Queenscliffe
- Cr Robert Gardner – Strathbogie Shire Council
- Cr Chris Raeburn – Strathbogie Shire Council
- Cr Peter Sycopoulis – Warrnambool City Council
I would like to express my appreciation to Kerry Thompson and the MAV team. They have done an amazing job under very difficult circumstances. Not only have they been working flat out responding to the pandemic, but they have also continued to manage usual MAV activities. As I said at the beginning, this is on top of the bushfires. So thank you Kerry and the MAV team.
Finally, thank you for all that you do for your communities and your leadership in these testing times. Remember, the current situation will be a marathon rather than a sprint.
I hope all of you stay safe and healthy.
With kind regards,