Minister vows collective punishment for dysfunctional NSW councils

By Julian Bajkowski

New South Wales Local Government Minister Don Page has warned that misbehaving councillors will now be sin-binned and have their have their fees suspended under new laws to clean-out grafting elected representatives who rort the system for their own personal benefit that are now in force.

The latest governance crackdown on the state’s local government sector comes in the form of a new Code of Conduct that empowers the state government’s Division of Local Government to probe misconduct by councillors take disciplinary action against elected representatives found to have breached the code.

“Sanctions include suspension of individual councillors for up to three months and in serious cases, suspension for up to six months or disqualification from civic office by the Pecuniary Interest and Disciplinary Tribunal,’’ Mr Page said.

The looming hunt for NSW local government representatives suspected of highly questionable behaviour has been anticipated since the election of the O’Farrell government, which promised to stamp-out dysfunctional elements of councils that served their own pecuniary interests rather than ratepayers.

However the state government has tempered its tough-talk with assurances that it will be judicious in the applications of its new powers.

“I want to emphasise that the vast majority of councillors uphold the highest levels of probity that we expect of them,’’ Mr Page said.

The Independent Commission Against Corruption in NSW, which is now inquiring into the dealings of  former Labor powerbroker Eddie Obeid, appears somewhat less satisfied with the general probity of local government, including non-elected public officials.

In October 2012 findings from the ICAC’s Operation Jarek concluded that “the provisions of incentives by businesses to public officials in NSW is widespread.”

The report also noted the “opportunity for corruption in agencies’ procurement and inventory management systems.”

But Mr Page said that the new rules “were the result of extensive consultation with the community, the local government sector, the NSW Ombudsman’s office and ICAC.”

Specifically, the local government minister said that the new laws allowed for:
•Councillors who misbehave to have their fees suspended for up to three months or in extreme cases, be barred from civic office for up to five years.
•A provision to punish councillors for making politically motivated or vexatious allegations under the code.
•New regional assessment panels to assess complaints made under the Code of Conduct.
•Creation of a role for the Division of Local Government to help councils administer the code.
•The Director General of Local Government to consider a councillor’s prior behavior when deciding on sanctions.
•A ban on councillors and their family members receiving gifts of more than token value including free meals, gym memberships, free or discounted overseas travel.
•A ban on councillors using their positions to gain a private benefit, financial or otherwise.
•A ban on sanctions for councillors who fail to abide by caucus rulings before council votes.

Meanwhile, Mr Page has been busy introducing new “early intervention laws” into NSW State Parliament that will extend powers to the state government to punish councils as a whole for bad behaviour rather than individual representatives.

A statement from Mr Page’s office said that the new laws would, if passed, allow the Minister to issue "improvement orders to poorly performing councils and to suspend councils for up to three months with a possible extension of a further three months to improve or restore the effective functioning of the council.”

Mr Page has dubbed the new laws the “Early Intervention Bill” a term commonly applied to stopping substance abuse and other problematic behaviours.

The proposed new laws are broadly in line with other states that are presently able to suspend councils rather than going through the more legally difficult procedure of sacking local governments.

“The Early Intervention Bill allows the Minister and the Division to address collective failure by a council and provides a mechanism for getting the whole council back on track to effectively serve its community,” Mr Page’s office said.

“The two sets of laws complement each other and form an integrated framework for dealing with dysfunction or poor performance in councils,’’ Mr Page said.

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