Council concerned by reforms

David Braithwaite

ALL local council wards could be changed to one-councillor districts under reforms proposed by the state government.

Wellington Shire Council is joining other councils in pushing the state government to delay proposed changes to the Local Government Act.

Reforms in the bill including the introduction of a preference for single member wards, allowing for the dismissal of a councillor through a community-initiated commission of inquiry, simplifying enrolments for voters, mandatory training for election candidates, capping electoral campaign donations and gifts, and defining standards of conduct to guide councillor behaviour.

Concerns have been raised by councils over the proposed reforms and lack of consultation.

Wellington Shire Cr Malcolm Hole described the proposed changes as “draconian”.

“We need a lot more information, and we need the government to sit and put more thought into it,” he said.

In opposing a change to the ward structure, Cr Hole pointed to Greater Geelong council, which had single councillor wards dismissed in 2016 because of the “undermining of good governance due to trade-offs”.

“What wasn’t good in 2016 under the Andrews government is suddenly going to be compulsory,” he said.

Wellington Shire was an unsubdivi ded municipality until a review led to it being split into three wards, each represented by three councillors, for the 2016 election.

While concerned with mandatory training for candidates, Cr Hole said petitions could be misused.

“In single member wards you’re going to need 50 per cent plus one to be elected,” he said.

“If somebody has got a bit of gripe and didn’t get the votes, they can get a petition up … it only has to have 25 per cent of voters call for the councillor to be removed.

“The petition is limited to 200 words, and it will be dealt with by the Victorian Electoral Commission. Now the VEC has no authority to check the veracity of that statement (on the petition).

“It will be up to the councillor named to prove his innocence rather than the petition to prove his guilt.”

It is proposed an unsubdivided municipality model option will be available to councils which cover a large area, but have a small population.

Because of the time required, the changes are unlikely to be implemented before the next council elections in October 2020, meaning they could be in place by the 2024 vote.

The training relates to the demands and expectation placed on councillors.

When announcing the proposed reforms in June, Local Government Minister Adem Somyurek said the new laws would help councils be more accountable, democratic and responsive.

“These changes boost consultation and engagement between councils, residents, ratepayers and businesses – as well as providing for ongoing accountability,” he said.

“We need a modern Local Government Act that meets the changing needs and expectations of Victorians – these are important changes that will deliver better outcomes for local communities.”