Victorian councils have raised concerns over what they say is an attempt by the state government to rush through legislation that would would effectively give citizens the power to remove council staff.
The proposed amendments to the state’s Local Government Act would enable residents to instigate Commissions of Inquiry with the power to suspend councillors for four years if they have a voter petition supported by 25 per cent of eligible voters.
The changes would also remove hundreds of thousands of non-resident ratepayers – or around 14 per cent of all voters – from automatic electoral enrollment – a move the council peak says will “disenfranchise” voters.
The Municipal Association of Victoria (MAV) is worried the Commission of Inquiry powers could be used as a “political tactic” to oust unpopular councillors or scuttle policies such as rate rises, and argues adequate processes are already in place to investigate misconduct.
“The objective seems to be to provide a mechanism for members of the local community (whether well-meaning, disaffected, politically motivated, personally motivated, or with malicious intent) to initiate a process with the intent of removing a democratically elected councillor during their term of office. This concept is fraught,” MAV says in a submission to the state government.
As well as potentially enabling improper influence, the move would also duplicate existing processes, MAV President Cr Coral Ross said in a statement on Monday.
“There are also multiple existing processes and mechanisms already in place to investigate councils or councillor conduct including Councillor Conduct Panels, the Local Government Inspectorate and the ability of the Minister to appoint a monitor or Commission of Inquiry,” she said.
The state’s proposed amendments also suggest single member wards be mandated, but MAV argues that this electoral structure doesn’t cater to the diversity of wards in Victoria.
The state’s reforms “are of the greatest concern as they could fundamentally shift the nature of council governance,” MAV argues in a submission to the state, which also calls for the bill to be pushed back by a year and reintroduced to Parliament.
Lack of consultation
Cr Ross criticised the state for side-stepping proper consultation and due process by giving the peak just over a month to respond and failing to release an Exposure Draft for the bill.
“When the State announced new reforms in June, there had been no public process to inform the government’s proposals and no available modelling outlining their rationale or the community impacts,” she said in a statement.
The lack of consultation flies against the state’s commitments to strengthen local-state relations, the submission says.
“We believe the approach taken in relation to the 2019 Proposed Reforms is not consistent with these commitments.”
The submission also provides in principal support for a number of other proposed reforms including a prohibition on foreign donations to council candidates, mandatory candidate training, prescribed standards of conduct and councillor allowances set by an independent tribunal.
A spokesperson for Victorian Minister for Local Government Adam Somyurek said that the submissions were being considered and the government’s response would be issued shortly. The spokesperson also said the feedback would be considered before the Bill is introduced to Parliament later this year.
If the amendments are enacted, Local Government Victoria will work intensively with councils to develop detailed best practice guidance material to assist councils, according to the spokesperson.
In background, the spokesperson also said that the proposed reforms largely respond to issues raised by councils and the community.
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