ROLE OF COUNCILLORS
Councillors have a number of different roles that must incorporate the interests of the whole municipality and those of their constituents. They play a vital leadership role in creating and implementing their community’s vision, strategic direction and values.
WHAT DOES THE ACT SAY?
The Local Government Act 1989 specifies that the role of a Councillor is:
- to participate in the decision-making of the Council and to represent the local community in that decision making
- to contribute to the strategic direction of the Council through the development and review of key strategic documents of the Council, including the Council Plan
In performing these roles, Councillors must:
- consider the diversity of interests and needs of the local community
- observe principles of good governance and act with integrity
- provide civic leadership in relation to the exercise of the various functions and responsibilities of the Council under the LG Act and other Acts
- participate in the responsible allocation of resources of Council through the annual budget
- facilitate effective communication between the Council and the community
The Act also states that Councillors must adhere to particular standards of good conduct. It also states that their legal authority as councillors only exists when they are participating, as a member of the council, in a formal council meeting. Significantly, outside of the council meeting individual councillors have no such authority.
WHAT DOES A COUNCILLOR DO?
As part of the council, councillors guide the development of local policies, set service standards and priorities, and monitor the performance of the organisation.
Councillors’ responsibilities include:
- strategic planning for the whole municipality and a sustainable future
- determining the financial strategy and allocating resources via the council budget
- representing ratepayers and residents
- advocating on a broad range of issues
- liaising and coordinating with other levels of government, non-government, community groups and the private sector
- overseeing the management of community assets
- facilitating community participation
- managing the relationship with, and employment of, the chief executive officer.
COUNCILLOR ACCOUNTABILITY AND REPRESENTATION
Councillors are accountable to both the community and to their own constituents.
As members of council, where the focus is necessarily on governing in the best interests of the entire municipality, councillors are accountable in multiple ways. These include acting in their roles as legislators, policy makers, strategists and financial overseers (see financial governance).
Councillors also have to represent their constituents on a wide range of issues. In doing so, councillors must obey the law, including the principle of natural justice. Councillors must also deal with a range of requests and complaints from their constituents which they need to find ways to deal with, preferably in conjunction with the administration.
Both these types of accountability need to be accommodated.
OTHER CHALLENGES FOR COUNCILLORS
Another challenging aspect of a councillor’s role can occur when council is the Responsible Authority under the Planning and Environment Act 1987. In this instance council, and therefore councillors, are in a quasi-judicial role making planning permit decisions based on the interpretation of the relevant legislation. This not only increases pressure on councillors but can also be difficult to navigate.
For example, if council has to decide on a particular statutory planning matter, a councillor may need to meet with constituents who are concerned about the application (representative). They may also have to chair a consultation meeting about the application (mediator) and then sit as a member of the Responsible Authority which will make a decision according to the details of the application and whether it meets the requirements of the council’s planning scheme (quasi-judicial/administrative). These are administrative decisions dealing with a person’s rights. When making an administrative decision, Councillors must only take into account relevant matters.
Communities can place strong pressures on councillors to act in their representative roles – that is, to represent their constituents’ views in the decision-making process. Mediation has its own set of pressures, requirements and responsibilities, as does the administrative role as a member of the Responsible Authority. For more information see Planning & councillor roles.
THE GOOD GOVERNANCE APPROACH
Accommodating all of these complex, and at times competing, roles is ongoing and constant. So it is important, from a good governance perspective, that these pressures are recognised and managed.
It can be helpful for councillors to be aware of and very clear about the particular role they are undertaking at any point in time – for the councillors, the administration and the community. For example, when dealing with a planning decision councillors should overtly state when they are moving from a representative role (consulting over a planning issue) to a quasi-judicial one (such as being part of a determination as the Responsible Authority).
This approach not only helps to foster productive relationships, but can also reduce misunderstandings and frustration for everyone.