Many councillors we surveyed did not adequately understand the purpose or importance of disclosing interests. They also did not understand the relationship between completing returns and disclosing a conflict of interest in council meetings.
“Councillors can be a little blasé about the completion of their returns and perhaps don’t take it as seriously as they should.” – council officer
Both councillors and council officers said the legislation requiring personal interests returns and the guidance provided by Local Government Victoria (LGV) contained complex legal terms and were difficult to understand.
As the owner of the legislation, LGV has a responsibility to publish guidance material that helps councillors and council staff to comply with the legislation and regulations. The guidance must be able to be understood by councillors from a range of educational and linguistic backgrounds.
“The language used needs to be simplified or examples given.” – council officer
Councillors were also concerned that there was no way to seek guidance in relation to their personal circumstances, apart from engaging a lawyer or accountant at their own cost.
Councillors and council staff wanted LGV to improve its written guidance on personal interests returns by:
- seeking input from councillors and council staff
- using plain English and explaining legal terms
- using real-life examples.
They also suggested to include more information about the relationship between conflict-of-interest provisions and the personal interests returns.
“Obviously, conflict of interest is an important issue and where donations/gifts occur that may influence a councillor’s decision-making it is equally important that these be made known.” – councillor
Councillors and council staff also asked for training to improve their understanding of the obligations for submitting personal interests returns. They believed training should be mandatory, consistent across the sector and delivered as induction and refresher courses.
Nominated officers who also submit returns would also benefit from training in their obligations.
LGV could also provide other support to councillors to complete their interests returns, including:
- creating a ‘help desk’ for councillors and council staff to direct queries about their personal interests returns
- providing best-practice examples
- giving updates to remind councillors of their obligations
- mandating the use of a prescribed form
- creating online submission software.
“I failed to include my residence in one return. A year later I copied from that return and didn’t realise the mistake.” – councillor
Our review revealed large variations in the support and guidance councils provided to their councillors. We believe councils and the peak bodies would be open to working with LGV to improve current guidance.
In a bid to provide some guidance to the sector, this report includes a checklist and template emails kindly provided by Melbourne City Council to help councils with compliance with personal interests returns under the 2020 Act.
4. The Local Government Act 2020 and Local Government (Governance and Integrity) Regulations 2020 should be amended to make it mandatory for people required to submit personal interests returns to use a form in a Schedule to the Regulations to ensure consistency of personal interests return submissions across the local government sector.
5. LGV should finalise its draft guidance material, which is currently in draft form on the Engage Victoria website. The final guidance material should:
- be written in plain English with all legal terms explained
- include information about how the accurate completion of their interests returns can assist them to identify possible conflicts of interest
- include real-life examples of interests to be disclosed
- be easily accessible on the LGV website
- be promoted through its communication channels.
6. LGV should communicate to councils and councillors:
- the importance of their obligation of completing accurate, complete, and timely personal interests returns for the integrity of local government processes that the personal interests returns will be relied upon by IBAC and other integrity bodies in the event of an investigation.
7. The Local Government (Governance and Integrity) Regulations 2020 be amended to include the topic of personal interests returns in the induction training for councillors.
8. The Local Government (Governance and Integrity) Regulations 2020 be amended to introduce annual refresher training in personal interests returns for councillors.
9. Councils should introduce annual training for their nominated officers and delegated committee members to increase their knowledge of the personal interests returns process.
10. LGV should provide regular updates to councillors to remind them of their obligations and to keep them informed about legislative amendments in relation to personal interests returns.