BADLY behaved councillors could be disqualified for 10 years as part of a major overhaul to the creaky 25-year-old Local Government Act.
This week local government minister John Carey announced long-awaited reforms to the Act and it reads like a remedy to what’s gone wrong at prominent councils that’ve been suspended over the past few years, like the City of Perth and Canning.
Under the reforms there will be a Local Government Conduct Panel that can suspend councillors for up to three months, and councillors who are suspended three times are disqualified from being an elected member for a decade.
“These reforms represent the most significant shake-up to the local government sector in more than 25 years,” Mr Carey says.
“We’ve had numerous inquiries, reports and reviews into the sector and now is the time for us to get on with the job of improving how local governments function in Western Australia.
“In recent weeks and months, we have seen examples of councils not operating as they should, and poor behaviour among elected members – the changes we’re introducing are aimed at addressing those issues sooner.
“The public are fed up with dysfunction and repeat bad behaviour by a small number of councillors. Chaotic meetings and petty squabbles are not good enough.”
The Chook canvassed the mayors of Fremantle, Melville, Cockburn and East Fremantle on the reforms, and they all largely welcomed them.
“I would hope that we would never be in a situation where a councillor needs the threat of a ban to manage their behaviour,” Fremantle mayor Hannah Fitzhardinge said.
“In my experience of being on council in Fremantle, we are a council that works together respectfully and constructively – we may have differing views about issues, but the betterment of Fremantle is our shared objective.”
But Cockburn mayor Logan Howlett was slightly sceptical about the timescale and harsher punishments.
“The real test is how long it will take to bring the legislation into fruition,” he says.
“Increased penalties don’t necessarily encourage better behaviour.”
Aside from harsher punishments for misbehaving councillors, the act also tightens up the rules for making an item on the agenda “confidential”, so it can be discussed behind close doors without the public present.
Over the years many ratepayers in Chookland have complained about items being made confidential “willy-nilly” by councils without any consistency or valid justification.
Melville council will likely welcome the new rule that CEOs can declare a complainant as “vexatious” and no longer have to respond to them.
In recent years they have been bombarded with complaints and queries from a small number of persistent ratepayers which council says has swamped their administration and stopped them from getting on with other work.
However a local government source said they were concerned about the vexatious rule, as residents with reasonable gripes have already been given the cold shoulder by some councils, prompting fears that legitimate critics might be deemed “vexatious”.
Would the contentious Wave Park have been built in Melville if this “vexatious” rule applied?
The reform says complainants deemed vexatious by a council CEO, will be able to appeal to the inspector.
The reforms also make it mandatory for council meetings to be recorded and for there to be live streaming of meetings at larger councils.
The government plans to introduce legislation to enact the reforms to parliament by the end of the year.
KEY changes to the Local Government Act:
• Introducing a new local government inspector to investigate and oversee complaints with the power of a standing inquiry, hoped to head off the need for suspensions by intervening before things get disastrous;
• Creating a new Local Government Conduct Panel that actually has some teeth to suspend councillors for up to three months, replacing the old standards panel which couldn’t do much beyond ordering councillors to apologise for breaching minor rules;
• Councillors who are suspended three times by either the conduct panel or the minister are disqualified from being an elected member for 10 years;
• An end to “sham leases” where someone creates a lease simply for the purpose of running for council or voting.
Sham leases have been an ongoing problem at Perth council, even after the 2020 Report of the Inquiry into the City of Perth revealed sham leases had been taken out by both council candidates and many voters — enough to have possibly tipped the election results in some years.
But even after that, at the 2020 election several voters were identified as having taken out a lease on a date after they’d applied to vote, an indicator of a sham lease. The WA Electoral Commission nevertheless allowed them to vote, and these new rules will prevent that by requiring a minimum lease period of 12 months before someone can nominate or vote, and it precludes very small sub-leases which were the source of many dodgy votes.
by STEPHEN POLLOCK