By Julian Bajkowski
Local governments in New South Wales have slammed moves by the O’Farrell state government to push through new laws that would allow the immediate suspension of councils without prior notice as part of bid to gain greater control over the sector.
Peak group Local Government NSW (LGNSW) has demanded the deferral of the “Early Intervention Bill” following crisis talks with Local Government Minister, Don Page, claiming “the 152 councils impacted by this proposed legislation were not consulted.”
The councils and shires body is urging that the entry of the bill into Parliament now be put off “until all details of the proposed legislation are publicly released.”
The showdown follows an announcement by Mr Page that the state government will attempt to pass legislation that would give it “sin-bin” powers similar to those now in operation in Western Australia.
The powers permit administrative intervention by the minister to suspend allegedly errant councils rather than having to go through the far more complex and lengthy existing legal process of trying to sack councils through the courts.
However LGNSW claims there is devil in the detail of the legislation and has vowed that Councils will now take up the fight to state Members of Parliament.
Joint President of Local Government NSW, Keith Rhoades, said councils were “entitled to be consulted on major issues” affecting the local government sector in NSW “as outlined in our proposed Intergovernmental Agreement with the State Government.”
"If passed, this legislation will undermine the democratic responsibilities of Mayors and councils elected by residents and ratepayers by making councils responsible to the Minister."
"We will be informing all of our member councils of our issues with this Bill and urging them to contact their local MP calling for the deferral of this proposed legislation until the NSW Local Government sector is properly consulted," Mr Rhoades said.
"Until recently, LGNSW was only aware of the broader details of the proposed legislation and was not privy to the details, which signify a fundamental shift in power."
A big worry for councils is under what criteria they can be officially deemed to be dysfunctional enough to be sidelined.
"The lack of detail and broad scope for the Performance Improvement Order criteria is extremely worrying. The NSW Government needs to give a clearer definition of what constitutes a 'non-functioning' and 'non-effective' council,” Mr Rhoades said.
Local Government NSW’s other joint president, Ray Donald, similarly slammed the criteria under the proposed new laws for sin-binning councils for a three month period.
"While the Bill provides for councils to respond to an intension of suspension notice, there is no explanation given on the situations that would qualify for a council's suspension", said Mr Donald.
"How can councils rebut or defend their effectiveness or position to the Minister when there are no clear parameters for suspension defined in the proposed legislation?"
"Compounding our concerns is the provision for the Minister for Local Government to completely bypass the 'notice of intention' requirement and immediately suspend a council if it is a matter of urgency."
The grab for new powers by Mr Page follows the breaking of a key election promise that the O’Farrell government would not force the amalgamation of councils.
In Queensland, the conservative Newman government has started the process of allowing councils forced into mergers a path to decoupling after rate rises and diminished services produced an electoral backlash against the former Labor government.
It is understood that tensions are also growing among some government members over Mr O’Farrell’s media tactics of front-running local government policy announcements through the tabloid media that have resulted in a fresh round of what one source termed “gratuitous council bashing.”
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