Councils prepare for ‘huge’ system reform

The “anticipated” proclamation timelines for changes to the Statutes Amendment (Local Government Review) Bill 2020 have been shared with Grant District elected members. Containing what Deputy Premier Vicky Chapman describes as the most significant reforms to the Local Government system in a single Bill since the end of the last century, the Statutes Amendment Bill 2020 outlines a multitude of changes to Local Government.

These changes range from minimal to massive and are expected to be rolled out during 2021, however, a suite of changes that will require minimal to moderate implementation tasks will be started by a proclamation that is anticipated to be made in early August 2021. Ms Chapman said it was proposed the reforms would start on the day they are proclaimed.

Grant District Council was advised of a few of the simpler regulation reforms, including changes to informal gatherings and improvements related to internal review of council decisions. Other smaller changes to the local government system will include the clarification of the roles of the principal member and members of council.

Alongside this is the new requirement for qualified independent advice in council chief executive appointment, performance review and termination processes. An 80-page marked-up document, showing amendments made to the Statutes Amendment (Local Government) Bill 2020, was shared with elected members, before the July 5 meeting.

The document was presented in a report by council’s governance officer Brittany Shelton advising of the expected timeline, which was moved by Councillor Brad Mann and seconded by Cr Peter Duncan. More sweeping changes than those to be implemented in August will come into law later this year, with part of the Statutes Amendment (Local Government) Bill 2020 dedicated to behavioural change.

Highlighting this is the introduction of a new council member conduct framework and the establishment of the Behavioural Standards Panel. Alongside this are a swath of changes to standards of behaviour, aimed at curbing “long-standing issues” of elected member conduct. These changes will be introduced later in the year to allow councils to prepare, with dates to be determined by the Local Government Association.

In a press statement made before the Bill passing, Minister Chapman said poor council member behaviour was an issue the State Government and local councils wanted to tackle. She said the reform included an expansion of anti-discrimination laws to cover sexual harassment between two council members, as well as new measures to improve financial accountability.

“Ratepayers expect good value for money and they deserve to know how their money is being spent,” Minister Chapman said. Additional changes include new guidelines for procedures at meetings, like ensuring members do not interrupt one another while they are speaking – the contravention of which could result in the equivalent of a 15-minute ‘time-out’ outside a meeting room.

Others include tripling the fine on a person found to be guilty of a complaint by a member of a council, up to $15,000 from $5000, following an investigation by the South Australian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (SACAT). The suspension period following an investigation has also increased from two months to six months.

Additionally, members of council who stand as candidates for election in State Parliament will now be taken to have been granted a leave of absence and will be unable to carry out any function or duty of their office as a member of council, or to use any supports provided by the council or its members. The maximum penalty for breaching this section of the Bill is $15,000.

But alongside the changes comes a relaxing of state and now council commitments to advertise in newspapers, after the option to publish government agency notices online was added to the Bill. This aspect of the Bill was previously flagged by Member for Mount Gambier Troy Bell, whose motion – calling for the Marshall Government to commit to an annual advertising spend in regional newspapers – passed the Lower House without amendment.

“If we are serious about this, not many people are visiting local council websites on a regular basis, keeping up to date with all of the notices in their local area, yet most in the regions will buy or read a local newspaper where that information is presented,” Mr Bell told the Lower House on June 23. Mr Bell said this was another example of the push to modernise the advertising of government news and public notices online and reduce the commitment to advertising in regional print publications.

“The simplify bill was just one example of this,” he said. “It was a bill that was introduced by this Liberal government. I spoke extensively against that bill, but it was passed. “Now we see another bill introduced … which seeks to do exactly the same as the simplify bill.”

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