CEO powered up for emergency

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Mornington Peninsula Shire CEO John Baker will be given emergency powers to make decisions normally made only by elected councillors.

A special meeting on council (Tuesday 7 April) is expected to agree to hand the powers to Mr Baker if councillors are ill or unable to meet because of COVID-19.

Under the suggested new rules, Mr Baker will be able to approve items of up to $1 million (if already in an adopted budget); $750,000 for works; $500,000 goods and services; and $200,000 for goods and services and works.

While Mr Baker is certain to get some extra powers, some councillors were late last week preparing a case for them to be watered down.

Meanwhile, council meetings have been reduced to one a month and will be followed by the planning services committee.

The extra powers given to Mr Baker will lead to shorter meetings, which will all be held at the shire’s Mornington offices which can more easily be made safer for the public than those at its Rosebud headquarters. A revised meeting schedule starts 21April and continues until September.

The extraordinary powers being handed to the CEO come as the shire’s focus changes almost daily to meet the needs of the coronavirus pandemic and to cope with an uncertain economic future (“Budget put off balance by virus“).

“Considering the recent developments with the COVID-19 pandemic these changes are deemed necessary and reasonable to continue the good governance and operations of council,” the head of the shire’s governance and legal department Pam Vercoe stated in a report to this week’s meeting.

In her report, Ms Vercoe said there was a risk that COVID-19 could prevent councillors from attending council or planning services committee meetings “due to illness or mandatory isolation”.

“Should less than five councillors be able to attend a meeting then it would lapse for want of a quorum and council business would not be able to proceed,” she stated.

“Given this risk, and considering the unique situation, it is desirable for council to ensure business continuity by temporarily enhancing the current level of the CEO’s delegated authority.”

Ms Vercoe said Mr Baker would be able “to make decisions in circumstances where a quorum cannot be formed, or the convening of a meeting represents [in his view] an unacceptable risk to public health and safety and it is desirable not to defer a decision”.

Similar changes to the power of CEOs had already been adopted at the cities of Yarra, Stonnington, Melbourne and Darebin.

Ms Vercoe said it was not possible for Mr Baker to ask how councillors would vote and then make a decision on the outcome “as such a process would be seen as an attempt to improperly convene a council meeting and vote”.

First published in the Southern Peninsula News – 7 April 2020

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