Council ‘puppets’

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The past three council terms has seen a dramatic boost in power to the administrative arm of council, according to a former Cardinia Shire mayor.

Bill Ronald, who served for 16 years on council with three terms as mayor between 1987 and 2008, has voiced concern over a growing imbalance of power between elected councillors and council officers; a notion dismissed by one of the newest councillors.

“Over the past probably three to four council terms, the dominance and influence of council officers compared to councillors has got out of balance,” Mr Ronald said.

“It’s about time councillors started addressing that by asking questions, calling on reports and debating controversial issues at council meetings rather than at council briefing sessions where the public is excluded.

“One of the things I miss is the councillors sharing their passion for the job by defending and representing their community more openly in council meetings.”

Cardinia Ratepayers’ Association president Gloria O’Connor, who has regularly attended council meetings since 2004, noted that the CEO role at council alone had “enormous” power.

She recalled an earlier time when the councillors would instruct a town clerk to act on their decisions.

But now she said the roles appeared to have reversed and councillors were at risk of becoming council PR “puppets”.

“Before the council amalgamation, mayors and councillors were very much in charge,” Ms O’Connor said.

“Gradually, as the administrative body of council has grown in size, councillors have become less powerful than they once were and much more reliant on the advice of the council officers.

“Some councils work with a complete meeting agenda, whereas Cardinia Shire Council uses a consent agenda program which means many items are covered in a private briefing session, and automatically approved at the public council meeting.

“In council briefings there is no public gallery, there is no transparency.

“A lot of issues at the meetings rush past so quickly. The Glismann Road decision, for example, should have been open to more discussion. There was no scrutiny from councillors.”

Ms O’Connor said members of the community were often led through the process of consulting with council community strengthening officers rather than speaking directly with the ward councillors they elected to represent them.

Questions addressed to the council towards the conclusion of each council meeting are also typically answered by council officers.

Ms O’Connor said she had once witnessed a council officer “step in” to respond to a question that had been addressed specifically to a councillor in a council meeting.

She also expressed concern over the lack of transparency around the induction process for newly elected councillors.

“It’s a long process and I’d have to question whether there’s a degree of instruction from admin,” Ms O’Connor said.

“We need to remember that our elected councillors are the final authority, they have a very important role and should not be overwhelmed by excessive bureaucratic and administrative influence.

“I’m not putting down councillors or the admin, which, of course, has its own place, but I have good hopes for the new councillors in being more proactive at questioning the process.”

New councillor Ray Brown told the Gazette that he had gained a different perspective on the council since being elected.

“I’ve been most impressed with the quality of people at council, particularly the junior staff. They are so well informed and their passion really comes across,” he said.

“But I have noticed there’s a hierarchy of power. Councillors can express concerns to the council staff but cannot direct the officers on what to do.

“And that’s how it should be, I think, more of a collaboration.

“Overall I have more confidence in the operation of council.”

Mr Brown described the induction process as “very intense”.

Council customer communications manager Todd Trimble said the induction process involved sessions on councillor codes of behaviour and responsibilities, presentations from the CEO and general managers, briefings on council meeting procedures, and discussions about statutory process requirements.

Mr Brown admitted there were a few processes that needed to be “fixed” but he failed to elaborate.

“There’s a few things that need to change but we’ll work through that,” he said.

“Some councillors might use the council meetings as a stage but I think that’s counterproductive. That doesn’t get you anywhere.

“I question things to the nth degree. I will be putting the best interests of the community first but there has not been one contentious issue since November.

“I’m not going to rubber stamp just anything. I’m not a follower and if something’s not quite right I will be challenging it.”

Originally published at Pakenham Gazette.

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About Alana Mitchelson

Alana Mitchelson is a journalist based in Melbourne, Australia. Follow her on Twitter at @AlanaMitchelson.

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