Victoria has passed legislation that will bring about wide-ranging reforms to local government and improve council operations, including their ability to respond to emergencies like COVID-19.
The Local Government Act 2020, which passed on March 17, is the result of extensive consultation with councils, ratepayers, stakeholders and communities to reform local government in Victoria.
LG Professionals Victorian president Liana Thompson said one immediate benefit of the act is that it will improve the way local councils are able to respond to the coronavirus pandemic.
“What it actually means is we can look at different ways of providing services to our community. So until the Act is up and going… lots of barriers could stop us from being able to quickly get involved,” she told Government News.
For example, it would enable councils to expand cleaning contracts in response to the pandemic without having to seek out quotes, a previous requirement.
“Yes, there’s an emergency… but until the government determined it was an emergency situation, if we were spending more money on cleaning or all of those things, we actually would have been in breach of the Act,” Ms Thompson said.
Old Act outdated
The new legislation was necessary because the old Act was prescriptive and outdated, Ms Thompson said.
“It’s been changed a gazillion times, so it’s incredibly hard to read. And it went from something like 100 pages to 600 pages,” she said.
The current Act had also failed to evolved in response to changes in the community and technology, Ms Thompson says.
“There was nothing in there about dealing with email, so it’s a real refresh,” she said.
“It’s moved from having a very prescriptive local government model, ‘you will use this, and you will do it in this way’, to ‘here are some principles, we need you to work within these principles’.”
Improving governance of councils
The new Act will improve the governance of local councils, making it possible for the state government to sack one councilor if they misbehave rather than dismissing the whole council.
Under the current Act, the Minister for Local Government does not have the power to sack a single councilor.
“At the end of the day, if things go wrong, the minister can sack an individual council on the advice of a municipal monitor or the integrity agency,” Ms Thompson said.
The community will also have the ability to call on the minister to investigate poor behaviour.
Legislation to ensure consistency
The legislation will ensure consistency across all 79 local councils in the state, enabling them to operate on the same page.
“Currently there are 79 ways of doing anything and so one of the great things about the new Act is that we’ve got the opportunity to not invent 79 new things but to have maybe something for small rural councils, something for larger councils and something for very large councils, depending on the need,” Ms Thompson said.
This consistency will make it easier for councils to collaborate across the state.
“What it allows is the councils can work differently so we will be able to join with our neighbours, we will be able to have regional responses to things that we don’t have to have the minister’s approval for,” Ms Thompson said.
Training for new councillors
Under the Act, all new candidates interested in becoming a councillor will be required to complete mandatory training before applying.
“I think this is really fantastic for people to know exactly what are the roles, what are the responsibilities of being a councilor; you need to have your eyes wide open,” Ms Thompson said.
Once elected, representatives will need to undertake mandatory training to get up to speed with the diverse businesses that councils run.
Elected representatives will also need to undergo training to get up to speed with the business of the council.
The training will mostly be provided by the Municipal Association of Victoria and the Victorian Local Governance Association. LG Professionals Victoria will be assisting offices to prepare for the training.
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