Local Government Amendment (Councillor Misconduct and Poor Performance) Bill 2015
14th October 2015
Mr GREG PIPER (Lake Macquarie) [10.13 a.m.]: Along with many other members, I contribute to debate on the Local Government Amendment (Councillor Misconduct and Poor Performance) Bill 2015. I acknowledge that the Minister for Local Government and the Office of Local Government have tried to correct the problems that the community has perceived in this area—perceptions that, in too many cases, are well founded. I support the bill, which generally seeks to improve not just the perception but the actuality of the performance of local councils in New South Wales. Many members of this House have at least some experience in local government. Many have quite extensive experience. I think my 21 years on Lake Macquarie City Council—one of the largest councils in the State—and 8½ years as mayor give me some understanding of the problems that occur. I point out that Lake Macquarie is not one of the councils that brought about the need for the previous major changes to the code of conduct or this amendment bill.
If members have not experienced dysfunction within councils in their own electorates they will be acutely aware of the behaviour of councils or individuals that has cast a shadow over local government generally. Anyone who truly values what councils do for their communities will find such behaviour very frustrating and will consider how things can be improved. The member for Port Stephens and the member for Wyong, who have electorates close to mine, made contributions to this debate. I understand the significant frustrations that they expressed in relation, respectively, to Port Stephens Council and to Wyong Shire Council. Those councils are not on their own; many councils across the State have, from time to time, caused problems. Through this bill the Government is trying to change the paradigm and improve the future performance of councils across the board in the eyes of the community.
This bill addresses some concerns and improves the timeliness of interventions that might, from time to time, be made by the Minister or the Chief Executive of the Office Local Government. For example, the bill reduces the minimum period of notice prior to the issuing of a performance improvement order from 21 days to seven days, and gives the Minister the ability to further fine-tune an order. Those, in my view, are useful improvements, but only if applied judicially. The use of the minimum seven days could, at times, be unreasonable but it is only a minimum period. I support the three-strikes rule that will see councillors who have been suspended three times for misconduct disqualified from holding civic office for five years, and I acknowledge that the deliberations of the Chief Executive of the Office of Local Government and the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal should be capable of testing appropriately whether the sanction is warranted under the circumstances.
I am concerned that the provision for a finding of minor misconduct requiring only a reprimand or counselling removes the right of a councillor to appeal that decision. I believe the councillor should be allowed, if nothing else, to place on file their response to the findings. Despite the intention that the matter will not be made public, it is quite possible—if not highly likely—that matters such as those will find their way into the public domain and then be used inappropriately by persons seeking to make political mileage. Overall, I believe that the intentions of this bill are right. I note that the Opposition and The Greens in this House will not be opposing the legislation. I note the comments made by the member for Heffron—similar comments might have been made by other contributors to the debate on this legislation—and I certainly share the sentiment that there may have been too much intervention by governments over the years.
Improvements to local government legislation have perhaps been brought about by the actions of the legislation of this House; however, in this case the Minister's hand has been forced by the recent activities of some councils. I acknowledge the problems that we have had in dealing with the activities of those councils. I therefore express my support of the Minister, the Minister's staff and the staff of the Office of Local Government. Hopefully, this legislation will set the bar at the correct height and give confidence to communities that they are being well served by councils.
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