BUNYIP JOURNALIST MATTEO GAGLIARDI WEIGHS IN ON THE RESPONSIBILITIES OF ELECTED MEMBERS, FOLLOWING RECENT DEBATE AT A GAWLER COUNCIL MEETING.
WHAT role does an elected member play in a council’s decision-making process?
This question became the subject of debate at last fortnight’s Gawler Council special meeting, when elected members discussed a funding grant application for a redevelopment project at Walker Place, in Gawler’s town centre.
While arguing that council should spend as much as possible to transform Walker Place into a “centrepiece of quality”, Deputy Mayor Ian Tooley said ratepayers expect councillors to take heed of council staff advice.
“We…cop an awful lot of criticism from our ratepayers that we ask for expert advice… and we ignore it,” he said.
“We did that with the High Street wall, we did that with the Gawler East link road, because we knew better, and we’re copping flack over those decisions.”
In contrast, councillor Paul Koch, who urged council to be fiscally conservative and limit its spending on the project, said elected members aren’t just “rubber stamps” for the decisions of council staff.
“We’re here to make decisions, we hear the recommendations and we make decisions on merit – we’re not rubber stamps,” Cr Koch said.
This isn’t the first time this topic has surfaced, incidentally.
At the August council meeting, Cr Tooley said, in relation to an officer’s recommendation regarding planned upgrades to Murray Street: “It does surprise me in this chamber that, at times, people think they know better than the experts”.
In that very same meeting, elected members revoked a confidential report that detailed a code of conduct investigation into a fellow councillor, Adrian Shackley.
That investigation cleared Cr Shackley of the complaints filed against him, by a member of the public, that he had breached the councillor code of conduct in relation to his contribution to the Gawler East link road debate.
Among the allegations levelled against Cr Shackley was that he’d disregarded “information and opinion provided by experts, such as council staff and consultants”, supposedly breaching a code of conduct clause stating that he must “act in a way that generates community trust and confidence in the council”.
It should, once again, be stressed that Cr Shackley was cleared of all the complaints by Norman Waterhouse Lawyers – the firm which carried out the investigation – for a variety of reasons.
However, what’s clear is that the mere perception of going against the advice of council staff struck such a nerve, at least from one community member, that it triggered a code of conduct complaint.
Norman Waterhouse Lawyers made clear its interpretation of the code of conduct’s expectations of elected members, in relation to the matter, in its report.
“We consider that council members, when provided with advice by council staff and consultants, are required to have due regard to that advice,” the report concluded.
“However, council members are not required to follow the advice of council staff, or consultants.”
For every individual who dislikes the decision of an elected member, there will also be an individual who dislikes the advice of council staff – such is the diversity of public opinion.
The best way to define the role of the elected member is to routinely monitor their actual decisions, express your own expectations of them in a civil way, and hold them to account when local government elections are held, in November 2018.