ROLE OF COUNCIL
The council consists of democratically elected members. Council’s role is to ensure ‘…the peace, order and good governance…’ of its municipality.
This broadly covers a range of legislative and functional activities including strategic planning, advocacy, representation, policy development and law making. Good governance underpins all of these activities.
WHAT DOES THE ACT SAY?
Both the council functions (section 3E) and council powers (section 3F) are set out in the Local Government Act 1989. When undertaking the functions described in the Act, councils:
- must make decisions on matters affecting their municipality and community
- should delegate some decisions to committees or officers and monitor how these are exercised
- should oversee the performance of the administration and the delivery of services and programs.
Councils also have responsibilities under other legislation such as the Planning and Environment Act 1987, the Road Management Act 2004 and the Equal Opportunity Act 2010. These acts are listed on the useful links page on this website.
Council decisions can only be made by a majority vote in the council meeting.
COUNCIL’S ROLE AND GOOD GOVERNANCE
The approach that council takes to fulfilling its role is important for good governance. Its focus should be high level – strategic and policy oriented, rather than operational. For example, council should set the policies and priorities for road maintenance rather than spend time on discussing what materials should be used on a specific road.
At any given time, councillors need to understand which function their council is performing. This will change depending on whether council is setting the vision, developing policy, preparing the budget or managing the Chief Executive Officer’s performance. See Role of councillors for more information.
Each of these functions requires different skills and different forms of leadership. Recognising and articulating this can help council in various ways. It can ensure that council has the appropriate skills and support readily available. It may help to increase the confidence of both the council and its administration, as well as reduce misunderstandings.
ROLE OF COUNCIL AND THE ‘BIG’ STRATEGIC PLANS
Council’s main responsibilities are to set the overall directions and goals for the municipality and then monitor their implementation and success. The tools for setting these directions and goals are the major strategic plans.
These include the council plan, the strategic resources plan, the municipal strategic statement and the municipal public health plan. From a good governance perspective, the most important of these are the council plan and the Strategic Resource Plan.
The council plan and the Strategic Resource Plan
The council plan and the Strategic Resource Plan are four-year plans which set the objectives and strategies of the council and calculate how these may be resourced. Some councils also incorporate annual plans or action plans in their council plan. These annual plans and the annual budget state what will be done during the year to achieve the council plan, what the performance targets and measures will be, and how the activities are going to be financed.
Good governance means that council must ‘own’ these plans by being involved in their development – from start to finish – and be committed to the outcomes. Merely rubber-stamping a draft put in front of it by an administration will not result in ownership. Plans that are ‘owned’ by council are more likely to be adhered to and will also better accommodate issues and ideas that can arise from time to time during the year, and which warrant consideration.
Strategic planning challenges for council
Council planning is a particular challenge for democratic local government. Councils are a combination of individuals who have been elected on the basis of promises they made to their constituents. Councillors will therefore try to implement the promises which they believe have been mandated.
Finding a way to deal with perceived individual mandates, managing community input, responding to issues which come up from time to time and ensuring continuity and stability is a peculiar challenge for successful council planning. However, there is no magic formula for success other than following a process which ensures that everyone has a chance to be heard.
Council planning and local government elections
While an election may result in the introduction of new councillors, the council as a legal entity will continue unchanged.
The strategic plans, policies and budgets that were put in place by the previous councillors (as council) will continue until they are amended by the new councillors (as council). Just because new councillors may have different ideas from their predecessors doesn’t mean that the policies of the previous council and their associated strategies will change. And the administration will also continue to implement them until they are amended by council resolution.
Sometimes new councillors will mistakenly believe that because the administration does not immediately change policies to respond to the ideas of the new councillors, it is not sympathetic to their policy ideas. Good induction processes and advice from the administration can help to minimise any misunderstandings. Giving new councillors the opportunity to discuss their policy ideas can also help address their concerns.
Good strategic planning processes contribute to good governance
Open and inclusive processes are critical for good governance. These will help to ensure that:
- councillors understand what policies are ongoing and where flexibility exists
- councillors’ issues are discussed and considered by council
- appropriate exchanges between elected members and the administration increase knowledge and understanding
- community input is considered early in the process
- councillors understand what is possible from a financial perspective.
When good governance processes are followed, councillors, administrations and the community are more likely to ‘own’ council decisions.