Conduct issues and councillor/staff interactions
Good conduct is essential to good governance and understanding how to promote good behaviour and good conduct in local government is vital for councillors and officers.
It is particularly significant in local government because it relies on councillors and officers working together to make decisions for the good of the community.
Councils such as West Wimmera have protocols in place which help councillors and staff understand who they can communicate with and what sort of communication is appropriate. Within the limits of legislation, the council makes its own decisions about the protocols around staff and councillor communication. However, once in place, these protocols must be followed.
Concerns were raised that councillors had inappropriately directed or influenced staff. It was identified that despite clear guidelines being in place in regard to councillor interactions with administration staff, unauthorised approaches of councillors to staff were reported.
It was also identified that council had provided councillor unrestricted access to the Edenhope and Kaniva offices. It is not common for councillors to have an equivalent level of access to council administration areas, staff and documents. This poses a risk for councillors in perceived or real allegations of conflict of interest or misuse of position.
In the course of this examination, the Inspectorate was satisfied there were adequate protocols in place in relation to councillor-staff contact, however, it was evident the protocols were routinely not followed.
A review of the Councillor Code of Conduct was also undertaken, along with interviews of relevant staff members and councillors. The code of conduct, reviewed and adopted on 15
December 2016, contains only the necessary sections of legislation but does not reflect some of the better practice codes of conduct identified across the sector.
In the course of the examination, instances were raised relating to conduct amongst councillors, and between councillors and council staff, that appeared not to align with the councillor conduct principles. Councillors must support and promote the principles under the Act and behave in a way that secures and preserves public confidence in the office of councillor.
It is important that, as the leaders of the organisation, the CEO and the Mayor ensure that codes of conduct are adhered to.
- Council review and improve the Councillor Code of Conduct. Council may wish to review code of conduct material from Wyndham and Ballarat councils as a guide.
- Ensure all staff and councillors are meeting the requirements of the relevant polices including the Councillor Staff Contact Protocols – October 2016, the Employee Code of Conduct & Ethical Behaviour Handbook Policy, and the Councillor Code of Conduct.
- Council should assess whether there are valid reasons for councillors to have ongoing unrestricted access to council offices. If it is determined that councillors are to continue being given unrestricted access to council offices, then protocols must be developed to ensure that confidential information and officers exercising delegated authority are not compromised.
Conflicts of interest (COI)
Councils are entrusted with a range of decision making powers in order for them to govern in the best interests of the community. Councillors are expected to act with integrity and transparency in ensuring their private interests do not affect their public duties, and that they do not manipulate council decisions for their own benefit.
In the course of this examination, the Inspectorate reviewed the process by which conflicts are identified, declared and recorded, and the general understanding of the COI framework. This included interviews with relevant council staff and councillors.
One of the most concerning issues was the lack of a formal mechanism to record a COI declaration and the lack of a COI register.
After interviews with staff, the Inspectorate considers that opportunities should be provided for councillors to improve their knowledge through training on the COI provisions of the Act and how the perception of COIs by the local community can affect council’s reputation.
As part of the examination, the Inspectorate reviewed a specific matter related to the Kaniva Aerodrome and found that there was no offence committed under the Act.
- Provide external, independent training in relation to the COI provisions to improve councillor knowledge and understanding of COIs.
- Create a COI register.
- Create and enforce the use of a COI declaration form.
- Council may also wish to liaise with Ballarat Council regarding their application dealing with conflicts and the reporting of gifts and benefits.
Councillors, members of the audit committee and special committees, senior officers and nominated officers are required to submit interest returns twice yearly to the CEO. The submission of interest returns is the responsibility of the individual and they are liable for any breaches of the legislation.
Adequately meeting legislative requirements, ensures that persons responsible for submitting returns, can participate in council decision making, free from concern of having bias or having a perceived or real conflict of interest.
The Inspectorate was advised that the interest return process is currently managed by the Corporate Support and OH&S Officer. Upon questioning, it was established that the end to end return process had not been documented. This creates an unnecessary risk to persons required to submit a return should the responsible officer be absent from the role during the return period.
It is to be noted that in an audit undertaken in July 2011, the Inspectorate identified that a number of interest returns had been submitted outside of the legislative return period. At the time, council acknowledged that the end to end process was not formally documented, and indicated through an action plan that an education refresher would be undertaken, as well as the implementation of a check listed administrative process, and a reminder system to be established. The risk identified in the previous audit appears not to have been heeded.
The three most recently submitted returns for each councillor were reviewed: one was submitted late and one was not witnessed. In to the case of the late submission, it was advised that the original return was identified as having not been completed correctly and was returned to the councillor.
Ten nominated officer returns were also reviewed (23 returns in total). In this review, one newly appointed staff member submitted two Primary returns and no Ordinary return, a recently appointed director had not yet submitted a Primary return, and one other return was submitted late.
Upon reviewing the above matters, there were no reasons provided to explain the non- compliance by the officers. Of most concern was the Primary return to be submitted by a director within 30 days of the appointment to their current role, which was on 16 June 2018. Emails dated 2 July 2018, 31 July 2018 and 20 August 2018 requested the director to complete and submit their return, however as at 12 November 2018, the return had yet to be submitted.
Of the Audit Committee members, two of the members had adequately submitted returns, however the third member had submitted one return late, and not submitted another return at all. It was identified that efforts had been made by the council to request the return as required, however they were not submitted by the committee member.
It is not acceptable for an audit committee member and a senior council officer, who ought be setting the example for council to have not complied with a legislative requirement. The Inspectorate will communicate directly with the individuals who have not met their legislative responsibilities.
- The interest return process should be formally documented to assist in ensuring that legislative requirements are met, irrespective of who has or is given responsibility for managing the process.
- The documented process should include the nomination of a secondary responsible officer who is aware of the process and the legislative requirements.
- Councillors, Officers and Committee members should be routinely reminded of their obligations to submit returns, that they are on time and appropriately witnessed.
- Returns are checked for statutory compliance, with non-compliant submissions followed up, and appropriate actions taken.
Reviewed 17 February 2023