WHAT IS LOCAL GOVERNMENT?
In Australia, there are three levels of government: local, state and federal. Local government is the first level and is responsible for matters close to local communities.
Victorian local governments are established under the provisions of the Local Government Act 1989. Each local government consists of the elected members (councillors) who form the council and council officers (the administration) who are paid employees.
HOW DOES LOCAL GOVERNMENT OPERATE?
Council and the elected members
Councillors are democratically elected either on a single-councillor ward, multi-councillor ward or whole-of-municipality basis. A person cannot act as a councillor until they have taken the oath of office and read and made a declaration to abide by the Councillor Code of Conduct.Their authority can only be exercised when they meet as a council at a properly constituted meeting.
Outside the council meeting, individual councillors (including the mayor, other than at Melbourne and Greater Geelong City councils) have very limited powers. Under Section 84 (1) of the Local Government Act mayors, or at least three councillors, have the power to call a special council meeting. Councillors have the power under Section 81 B (b) and (c) to make an application to a Councillor Conduct Panel.
The council meeting is a formal process, defined by both the Local Government Act and by each local government’s local law.
The CEO and the administration
The Chief Executive Officer (CEO) is directly accountable to council and also has specific authorities, including managing the day-to-day operations and the organisational structure, under the Local Government Act. Refer to the section on CEO’s responsibilities for further details.
The administration is formally accountable to the CEO. It provides advice, usually as written reports, to council to assist decision making. It is also responsible for implementing council decisions and provision of services.
WHAT MAKES LOCAL GOVERNMENT UNIQUE?
At the state and federal levels of government, there are formal structures that govern the roles and relationships of parliamentarians. There is a head of government and cabinet of ministers with executive powers, a formal governing party and opposition, and a speaker in the legislature. These structures help to manage the behaviour and processes at the state and federal levels. For example, the role of the speaker is seen as independent from the government and the opposition, and has the authority and the power to enforce standards of parliamentary behaviour.
By contrast, in local government the mayor is not only the leader of the councillors, but is also responsible for managing both the council meeting and the conduct of councillors, as well as discharging their responsibilities as a councillor. When there is a contentious issue that has divided council opinion, the mayor may be trying to achieve a particular outcome while managing the meeting processes in a way that maximises the opportunity for everyone to participate and be engaged. In these situations, the mayor may be seen to have conflicting objectives.
Members of parliament at the state and federal levels also have a range of administrative supports and services that are not available to councillors in local government who instead must rely on the goodwill of the council administration. This can lead to misunderstandings between councillors and council officers about appropriate roles and relationships and acceptable good conduct.
This lack of supporting structures and services places unique pressures on councillors and the administration and has considerable implications for the practice of good governance in local government.