High performing councils are commonly those that foster good working relationships between councillors and council staff. These working relationships are often built on a foundation of values, respect and clear guidelines to ensure councillors have access to information but do not risk falling foul of the laws preventing improper direction or influence of staff.
These relationships, and performance of council staff, can be impacted when elected councillors seek to influence or improperly direct council staff, particularly those with delegated decision making powers in areas such as local laws, planning and legal services.
The Inspectorate recently completed an investigation where it was alleged that councillors had attempted to influence the council’s prosecution of a resident. Two councillors attended a court hearing in apparent opposition to council’s prosecution case and spoke to the council prosecutor and other council staff present.
This raised issues over the implied pressure on council staff by councillors and also the reputation of council where the organisational policy supported a prosecution but elected councillors publicly opposed it.
Subsequent to the court hearing, one councillor approached the council legal services manager attempting to secure the withdrawal of the prosecution case. In this second interaction the councillor was found to be in breach of the misuse of position laws under the Local Government Act 1989.
During the investigation, however, the Inspectorate found the council did not have a policy that set out clear guidance to address interactions between councillors and council staff on operational matters.
On the basis of the gaps in formal guidance at the council, the Inspectorate elected to issue a warning to the councillor for the interaction with the legal services manager and made the following recommendations to council:
• Adopt a policy specifically addressing interaction between councillors and council staff and in particular interaction with staff carrying out the functions under a delegated authority, as is common across the sector;
• Amend the existing councillor code of conduct to include a reference to the above mentioned policy;
• Following adoption of the above policy, ensure that all councillors are trained in respect to the new policy.
In previous work, the Inspectorate has reviewed councillor/staff interaction policies across the sector. Wyndham Council is one example of an organisation that has recently reviewed and is in the process of updating its Councillor-Staff Interaction and Email Policy, and works with councillors on training where necessary. For enquiries on the council’s policy, contact Wyndham corporate affairs manager Emily Keogh on 9742 0731.