Council ‘watchdog’ to get stronger bite

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COUNCILLORS will face greater scrutiny from the local government watchdog, the Local Government Inspectorate, when new powers are introduced into Parliament mid-year.

Two new offences relating to breach of confidentiality and improper direction of council staff will be introduced.

Mayors will have the power to order the removal of unruly councillors from council meetings, although how this will occur has not been detailed.

The Chief Municipal Inspector will have expanded power to investigate and prosecute breaches of conduct under the Local Government Act 1989. Misbehaving councillors will face stronger penalties.

Local Government Minister Jeanette Powell announced the changes on Monday and said the reforms were “part of a suite of vital improvements to governance and conduct arrangements designed to improve the standing of local government”.

She said the changes “send a clear message to current and future councillors that they must be beyond reproach when representing their communities”.

Giving the local government watchdog more power comes after last November’s council elections generated widespread complaints.

But they do not address concerns about the lack of information about candidates, the prohibitive cost facing candidates wanting to send election material to voters, how candidates’ pre­ferences can potentially be mani­pulated, and so-called “dummy” can­didates who stand just to pass on preferences to a second candidate.

The two new offences relating to breach of confidentiality and improper direction of council staff both will carry penalties of up to 120 penalty units ($17,323).

Mrs Powell said the inspectorate would have the power to investigate alleged instances of serious misconduct by a councillor and to initiate prosecutions for serious and gross misconduct.

“The overwhelming majority of coun­cillors are decent, hardworking people who represent the best interests of their community,” she said.

The inspectorate will continue to have the power to investigate possible breaches of the Act such as:
- Misuse of position by a councillor, which is the most serious offence in the Act and carries a penalty of 600 penalty units ($86,616) or imprisonment for 5 years or both.
- Failure by a councillor to declare conflicts of interest, which carries a penalty of up to 120 penalty units ($17,323).
- Failure by a councillor to lodge pecuniary interest returns, with each offence carrying a penalty of up to 60 penalty units ($8661).

The inspectorate will soon have the power to prosecute instances of improper direction or influence by a councillor of a member of council staff, and the release of confidential information by a councillor.

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