Councillor behaviour becomes SA election issue

Sam Johnson with Nick Xenophon (from Nick Xenophon’s Twitter feed)

Local government, and more particularly the conduct of individual councillors and council staff, has become a major issue in the South Australian election, which is now less than two months away.

South Australians go to the polls on 17 March. It will be one of the more interesting elections in Australia in recent years, with maverick ex-Senator Nick Xenephon’s new SA Best party set to hold the balance of power, and with an outside chance of being in government. Mr Xenephon may even be Premier after the election, though it is unlikely.

Mr Xenophon’s campaign policies include protection for whistleblowers at all levels of government. He wants to clean up local government. Candidates for SA Best in the election include a number of local government representatives, including Port Augusta Mayor Sam Johnson and Adelaide Hills Council Andrew Stratford.

More are expected to be announced before nominations close on 26 February – only three weeks before the election. Gary Johanson, the popular mayor of the City of Port Adelaide Enfield, has been spoken of as a potential candidate and has not ruled himself out.

Meanwhile, Labor Premier Jay Weatherill has agreed to  an Opposition proposal that all South Australia’s councils should release details of ratepayer funded trips for councillors and staff. The move follows publicity about Mount Gambier Mayor Andrew Lee, who was found to have helped with the sale of a winery while on official business in China, and Port Pirie Mayor John Rohde, who visited a woman he had met online on two official trips to the Philippines.

In the leadup to the election, Adelaide’s daily newspaper, Rupert Murdoch’s The Advertiser, has surveyed the state’s 69 local government authorities about the number of complaints they have received from the public about the behaviour of councillors and staff. Fifty councils responded to the survey.

The Advertiser found that 169 complaints were investigated by the 50 councils  since the November 2014 local government elections. Three councils – Victor Harbor, Adelaide Plains, and Charles Sturt – each had more than 20 complaints.

The code of conduct complaints often mean lengthy investigations, costing ratepayers tens of thousands of dollars each year.

“Councillors found to have breached the code can be forced to make a written or public apology, undertake a training course or repay some of their allowance,” reports The Advertiser.

“In serious instances, regarding misconduct or if council cannot resolve issues about behaviour or council principles in house, the state’s public sector watchdog the SA Ombudsman, Wayne Lines, can step in to investigate.”

Mr Lines told The Advertiser he was dealing with far too many ‘personality clashes’ between elected representatives and each other or council administrators.

“Quite commonly we get referrals that are about the behaviour of councillors such as being disrespectful or lying to one another.

“It is those interpersonal things that they frame as breaches of the code when it is not actually affecting the business of the council. I am not in favour of having to investigate bullying allegations.”

Mr Lines has a point. Many of the complaints are extremely petty, and based on personalities rather than substantive issues. They include:

Salisbury, September 2015. Deputy Mayor Brad Vermeer was forced to apologise after comparing Norwood, Payneham and St Peters Mayor Robert Bria with communist dictator Mao Tse-Tung.

Onkaparinga, September 2016. Councillor Gail Kilby was accused by councillor Bill Jamieson sexist remarks on a Game of Thrones themed Facebook post. The subsequent investigation cost ratepayers $24,000. There was also another incident involving the two counsellors in June 2016.

Whyalla, May 2017. Mayor Lyn Breuer breached the code of conduct, swearing during an aggressive verbal encounter with another councillor and a member of the public.

Tea Tree Gully, July 2017. Councillor Paula Luethen-Soper complained that another councillor had not returned her phone calls, forcing a legal investigation.

Salisbury, November 2017. Councillor Betty Gill was forced to apologise after ridiculing a resident’s spelling on Facebook.

Unley, December 2017: Councillor Mike Hudson was ‘angry and aggressive’, pushing opponents out of the way during a town hall meeting.

Victor Harbor, December 2017: Councillor Peter Charles told a female colleague she should breastfeed his dog to stop it barking.

Playford, January 2018: Councillor Dennis Davey removed his false teeth and inappropriately touched a female volunteer.

Your local government at work.

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