What’s wrong with our local councils? Everything

What's wrong with our local councils? Everything
Melburnians are heading to the polls in one of the most dysfunctional rounds of local government elections since the Kennett government’s reform of the sector in 1994.The unedifying campaign has laid bare many of the problems plaguing local councils across Victoria. Melbourne Town Hall.  Photo: Simon O’DwyerSo low has public regard for local government fallen that seven inner-city councils last month proposed a public relations campaign  to justify their existence and respond to “commentary that seeks to undermine trust and confidence in local government”.Voting in the chaotic elections – marred by huge numbers of dummy candidates, rows over religion and candidates being investigated by police – is this week drawing to a close, with postal votes due in 25 of the city’s 31 councils.Voters in six other Melbourne councils with attendance polls – Banyule, Dandenong, Knox, Moreland, Port Phillip and Yarra – go to elections on Saturday.The vote comes as former local government leader Elizabeth Proust renewed her call to drastically slash the number of councils running Melbourne’s services, and merge them into a handful of municipalities.And former Victorian premier Jeff Kennett also said that, because the Andrews government has no appetite for council amalgamations, Melbourne’s councils must become far more efficient.A review of key issues in the sector has revealed what could be done to improve governance of the world’s most liveable city.PayEvery one of Victoria’s 79 councils is headed by a high-paid chief executive, who often enjoy annual pay rises of $10,000. Melbourne City Council has the highest paid CEO, earning at least  $460,000, plus another 185 staff members earning more than $139,000.Bullying and bad behaviourPhoto: Joe ArmaoGeelong council was sacked earlier this year after investigations found “bullying” had taken root at the bayside municipality. Celebrity mayor Darryn Lyons, above, allegedly swore at staff members, told one person they “should be picking up dog shit” and threatened to shut down a city business. Wangaratta council was also sacked in 2013 due to similar concerns.SecrecyMany decisions are made by Victoria’s councils in meetings closed to the public, and remain secret indefinitely. Latrobe City Council is Victoria’s most secretive, making almost half its decisions in closed meetings. Casey Council is Melbourne’s worst, with 37 per cent of votes closed to the public.At Brimbank council, which is run by administrators, just 1 per cent of decisions are closed to the public, suggesting other councils are being overzealous in their use of confidentiality.Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass is so concerned about the issue she has launched an investigation into local government transparency. Dummy candidatesWyndham Council has 95 candidates running in this year’s election, more than double that ran in 2012. Many can be shown to be running as “dummy candidates” – someone who stands with no intention of winning, but rather to channel their preferences to another candidate. Darebin Council also had at least five candidates whose preferences were identical – and included the same mistake on their how to vote cards.Local Government Minister Natalie Hutchins has no appetite for pursuing forced amalgamations but she did not rule out reducing the numbers of Victorian councils in the future.She said there was a case for greater sharing of service arrangements.”When you’re talking about 79 councils there is just so much scope for them to be working together and saving money for their ratepayers,” she said.Ideally, Melbourne would have far fewer councilsPhoto: Louise KennerleyA range of sitting councillors said on background that reform of local government was long overdue, but few were to prepared to speak publicly. Melbourne City Council’s finance chair Stephen Mayne, who is seeking re-election, said that ideally Melbourne would have a handful of larger councils.”If you had your druthers, you’d have a dozen in Melbourne but it’s so hard [to merge them],” he said. Cr Mayne, above, said Mr Kennett’s hard-fought amalgamation of Victoria’s councils from 210 to 79 was “one of his best reforms. In hindsight he could have gone bigger”.Like many interviewed for this story, he said Melbourne City Council and a number of inner-city councils – such as Yarra and Port Phillip – could easily merge into one central city municipality. “You can hit a driver out of the steps of parliament into the City of Yarra. And the two sides of St Kilda Road being governed separately is [strange].”Melbourne only needs one councilFormer Melbourne City Council chief executive, a previous head of the Victorian public service and current Bank of Melbourne advisory board chairwoman Elizabeth Proust in 2013 proposed one council for all of Melbourne. “I remember a lot of people told me all the reasons it was a bad idea,” Ms Proust said.But she maintained it was an excellent idea, and that local government reform was needed in Melbourne. “Think how many councils, council chief executive officers and small services we have,” she said. “It may not be one mega council for all of Melbourne, but you could certainly do with three to four.”She pointed to a New Zealand experience of merging councils as a success. Auckland in 2010 went from having eight city and regional councils to one “super council”.But mergers mean lost democracyRo…

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