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Australia ‘Take a good look': Minister issues warning ahead of council elections

09:40  02 march  2021
09:40  02 march  2021 Source:   smh.com.au

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Local councillors who put their own political and personal interests above ratepayers before this year's elections could be potentially removed from office as part an expanded set of powers given to the watchdog.

NSW Minister for Local Government Shelley Hancock speaks during Question Time in the Legislative Assembly at New South Wales Parliament House in Sydney, Wednesday, August 21, 2019. © AAP Image/Joel Carrett NSW Minister for Local Government Shelley Hancock speaks during Question Time in the Legislative Assembly at New South Wales Parliament House in Sydney, Wednesday, August 21, 2019.

NSW Local Government Minister Shelley Hancock has urged the state's 1300 councillors to "take a good look at themselves", saying the government had no tolerance for "petty politics" in the months preceding the September election.

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"Ratepayers rightfully expect high standards of leadership and behaviour from their elected representatives," she said.

"That's why ahead of the September elections, I am warning all councils to make sure they do the right thing or face disciplinary proceedings."

Late last year the state government strengthened the investigative processes and penalties able to be used by the Office of Local Government in responding to allegations of misconduct against councillors, including allowing the agency to more quickly intervene in council matters and impose more serious penalties, such as public apologies, suspension and even disqualification from office.

The amendments to the Model Code of Conduct were prompted by a 2019 NSW Supreme Court decision that found a Sydney council had limited powers to discipline a councillor who received a three-month suspension of his salary following misconduct findings.

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Other changes included requiring councils to publicly disclose misconduct findings, and requiring webcast meetings to be kept on council websites for at least 12 months to heighten scrutiny.

Mrs Hancock said the boosted resources of the local government watchdog made it well-placed to investigate and penalise councillors.

"I urge all councillors to take a good look at themselves and focus on doing the job they were elected to do -serving the best interests of their local community," she said.

But NSW Labor's local government spokesman Greg Warren described the minister's caution as a "condescending statement with little-to-no substance or context" and accused the government of diverting attention away from more serious issues.

"The financial sustainably of councils is going to the wall, the forced amalgamations agenda has been a dismal failure that has seen communities suffer," he said.

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Local Government NSW president Linda Scott said the council peak body strongly supported high standards of transparency and accountability.

"The state government has left a number of bullying complaints and other serious allegations raised by elected local government leaders unresolved for longer than two years," she said, adding the organisation had previously urged the state to bolster the resources of the OLG.

Mrs Hancock's warning follows the suspension of Central Coast Council in October after an $89 million debt made it unable to pay its 2000 staff, and the earlier suspension of Armidale Regional Council over infighting that led to court proceedings.

Wingecarribee Shire Council, in the Southern Highlands, was also issued with an improvement order by Mrs Hancock in September over a drawn-out period of dysfunctional behaviour.

In December, two councillors at Georges River Council were revealed to have been under investigation by the Independent Commission Against Corruption, while Inner West Council mayor Darcy Byrne is fighting his possible suspension before the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal over allegations he failed to declare a non-pecuniary conflict of interest. He has denied any wrongdoing and says there was no conflict.

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