By Angela Dorizas
The West Australian Government has defended its decision to pursue council amalgamations and a reduction in the number of councillors, following accusations from the local government sector that it was breaking an election promise on forced amalgamations.
Local Government Minister John Castrilli has invited the state’s 139 councils to voluntarily amalgamate and to reduce the total number of elected members of each council to between six and nine.
“I want to give local government themselves the opportunity to tell me what they believe is the best configuration for local government going forward in Western Australia, because I’ve got no numbers in mind or anything,” Mr Castrilli told Government News.
Councils have a period of six months to advise the Minister of their intentions to merge with other councils and downsize elected representation. Each proposal will be submitted to the WA Local Government Advisory Board for consideration and recommendation to the Minister. If councils fail to make a submission the Minister will consider introducing legislation that would force them into amalgamations.
Following the announcement, Western Australian Local Government Association (WALGA) president Bill Mitchell, accused the State Government of breaking an election promise on no forced amalgamations.
“There is nothing voluntary when you are given a six month deadline and told what the outcome has to be and that if you don’t volunteer it will be forced,” Cr Mitchell said.
He said councils were already working towards a process of regional cooperation which could lead to voluntary amalgamations further down the track, but that plan had been undermined by the State Government’s decision to impose a six month deadline.
Mr Castrilli told Government News that the State Government did not break an election promise.
“There is no break in election promise, because at the moment it’s voluntary,” he said.
“What I’m saying from a personal perspective – I’m talking about personal perspective – if the local government industry says to me ‘thanks but no thanks, the status quo remains’, well then personally, I can do one or two things. I can either do nothing, which is not an option for me, or I could look at mechanisms by which I can progress this further.”
When asked whether future legislation would go against election promises, Mr Castrilli failed to give a definitive answer.
“I’d have to go to cabinet and put and position – this is all depending on what comes back from local government,” he said.
"I’ve had some good responses back from local government saying they’re on the job and getting on with it. Obviously I’ve had mixed responses from some quarters, but I’m confident that they will come and take up the challenge and at least at the end of six months give me a clear indication as to what they think is the best way to go and what models they’re happy to go with and then I’d look at those."
Mr Castrilli said the local government sector had been talking about reforms for more than 20 years, which was an "unacceptable" timeframe.
Steering Committee to assist councils
As part of his fast tracked reform process, the Minister has established a Local Govenrment Reform Steering Committee and four working groups to develop best practice models and guidelines to assist local governments as they pursue voluntary amalgamations.
"They’ll be looking at other options too – looking at maintaining local community identity, financial growth and community representation, including consideration of community based committees. Plus there are four other working groups, which will make recommendations that examine areas of local government and other local government reforms, on corporate strategic planning, commercial enterprise of local government, what is the capacity and training needs of local government, and basically looking at enhancing the whole local government sector in the reforms," Mr Castrilli said.
"It’s not just about trying to get a reduction in numbers and reducing both numbers of councils and councillors, but it’s looking at how better we can do the business of local government, in terms of capacity building with both elected members and staff, how we get better outcomes in terms of more consistent planning and building approval decisions, the whole range of services that local government deliver."
Cr Mitchell welcomed the establishment of the Steering Committee and WALGA’s inclusion in the reform process, adding that the State government was "not going to succeed unless they work with the sector."
"The Minister maintains that he is asking councils to ‘voluntarily’ amalgamate, but this is using weasel words at best," Cr Mitchell said.
"There is nothing voluntary when you are given a six month deadline and told what the outcome has to be and that if you do not volunteer, it will be forced."
Cr Mitchell said he would use the first Committee meeting, held on Friday 13 February, to seek a clarification from the Minister on his reasons for council amalgamations.
For more information, including the full list of committee members click here.
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