Changes afoot, but councils must remain autonomous

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By Cr David Clark – President of the Municipal Association of Victoria

Councils have a long history of serving their communities. As the democratically elected level of government closest to community, they reflect the diversity of people living and working in their cities, regions and rural towns.

Like any level of government, councils need to continuously review their performance and ensure their currency with new and emerging issues and challenges. The local government sector embraces the opportunity to reflect on what's working well, what needs to improve, and where sector-wide changes can be made.

Having taken time to absorb IBAC’s Operation Sandon report, councils have made one thing clear; they want to be part of the reform agenda to ensure changes are designed and implemented with a sector-wide lens, and not a knee-jerk reaction. Reform can’t focus on specific council examples that don’t reflect the sector as a whole.

The Municipal Association of Victoria (MAV) welcomes reform to further strengthen the effectiveness and autonomy of the local government sector, but it’s critical it is evidence-based and reflects the diverse nature of the sector and the communities it serves.

After the Operation Sandon report was finally released in July, much of the public focus has been on the impacts the recommendations will have on the State Government’s pending planning reforms. Focus on the hot-button issue of planning doesn’t explain the full impact of the report for councils.

The report also has significant focus on local government governance. Good governance is about local perspective in a consistent statewide framework and it’s critical we get any changes right. The first step in that process is to engage in meaningful engagement with local government.

Councils are committed to providing open, accountable, and transparent local leadership. Improvements in the Code of Conduct Framework are essential; and the local government sector has been consistently raising the need to improve its ability to clearly define and deal with poor behaviour in individual council settings for some time. Changes to the conflict-of-interest requirements are an important, obvious step we’d like to see all levels of government commit to.

And while we accept and embrace many of these recommendations, councils must maintain their autonomy. The local government sector cannot support a recommendation impacting a council’s ability to recruit and manage the employment and performance if its CEO. This would result in a fundamental change to the role and function of an elected council.

The sector remains firmly committed to ensuring best practice and consistency is achieved across the sector and believe this can be done by continuing to improve the function of a CEO’s employment.

The relationship between an elected council and their CEO is critical and fundamental to the operation of every council at the local level. As the employer, elected councils must have responsibility for decisions about all of the employment arrangements of their CEOs.

Place-based elected representation ensures the democratic role of councils is maintained to best reflect the aspirations of local communities.

The MAV, on behalf of the local government sector, needs to be at the table to work constructively with the State Government to design and develop reforms that enable our cities, regions, and rural communities to thrive.

Councils decide 99 percent of planning applications locally, which means they are the subject matter experts. They appreciate the myriad of opportunities to improve the planning system and have requested that the Planning Minister and Department partner with the MAV and the local government sector.

This would ensure councils’ technical expertise and local knowledge is not lost in reforms and lead to the best possible outcomes for all Victorians.

Let’s be upfront. The need for a genuine partnership on planning, governance or any other reform impacting local government is highlighted by the very first recommendation in Operation Sandon.

We’re asking for the MAV, as the legislated peak body for councils to be included in the ‘Implementation Inter-departmental Taskforce”, which will coordinate the implementation of the report’s recommendations.

The sector’s inclusion will ensure the local government perspective is at the table on these critical changes to ensure councils continue to be the dynamic and diverse sector that understands local community needs and aspirations in order to deliver outcomes that are important to our residents.