COUNCILLOR CONDUCT CODE: BETTER, BUT NOT BEST

Councillors voted to approve a new Councillor Code of Conduct at a special meeting on 20 February. It was far better than the code it replaced, but, to use the words that exasperated teachers wrote in Bandicoot’s school reports those many years ago, the code was a “Can do better” effort.

David GillCr David Gill (pictured) declined to sign it on Monday evening. He risks disqualification as a councillor if he does not change his mind within 30 days.

The shire code, compared with the Municipal Association of Victoria’s model code, is wordy, repetitive and, in Bandicoot’s view, unnecessarily proscriptive, verging on paranoia in parts – a hangover from the code written and endorsed by past councillors, most now retired. The new code is clearly is the work of a group struggling to accommodate many points of view.

The MAV model runs to 14 pages and 5400 words. The shire code covers 20 pages and just under 9000 words. The model code disposes of “Confidential Information” in 133 words; councillors took 310, including the extraordinary injunction: “Information deemed as ‘Confidential Information’ will not be passed to the Media via third parties.”

And rightly so! Perhaps it should have added: “…or placed on trucks from which it might fall at or near journalists’ abodes or places of work.”

cr-hugh-fraserBandicoot understands much dross was edited out of the adopted code before it came to the Monday meeting, including what Cr Hugh Fraser (pictured) described as “vague motherhood statements” and the “substantive vices of the old document”.

A serious concern of Cr Fraser related to the shire’s audit committee, on which he was councillor delegate for the past four years and on which he remains. Last year the code was altered to “adjust” his role on that very important body – requiring him to refrain from raising matters without prior approval of fellow councillors.

Former Cr David Gibb had, Cr Fraser said last year, inserted a clause into the code that “directly impact[ed] on the independence of the Audit Committee and good governance of the shire”.

As Bandicoot wrote at the time, auditors are the very financial backbone of legally constituted bodies including businesses large and small, community groups, sporting clubs and even municipal councils.

Their members are – and must be – independent of councillor influence, or the possible outcome can be a flourishing of corrupt practices.

So Cr Fraser would be well pleased at the revised wording relating to this crucial committee, which “clarifies the independence of council delegates on [the] Audit Committee”.

Such delegates now “Attend Audit Committee … to independently perform their role in accordance with the Audit Committee Charter”.

The previous code directed councillor delegates to “advise fellow councillors in advance the nature of the voting issues and seek feedback to assist the delegate in exercising a vote on behalf of council”.

The model code makes no mention of councillors’ roles as delegates. Nor does it specify how mayors must conduct themselves. But our shire mayor must “only articulat[e] policy positions that have been adopted by Council” and “act in a manner that enhances the respect and prestige of the Office of the Mayor”.

Bandicoot can think of no occasion on which any shire mayor he has known would have acted contrary to such a direction. Nor can he imagine a mayor doing other than “Promoting a positive image of Council and a positive organisational culture”. So why this rather insulting, negative and overbearing instinct to micro-manage a group of responsible adults?

Returning briefly to the “renegade” Cr Gill: he handed Bandicoot a document containing proposed amendments to the code, which he failed to have debated at the special meeting.

Uppermost was his preferred option – to adopt the model code. But since that would not get approval, he wanted to add openness, transparency and accountability to the code on which councillors were to vote.

He also sought to add weight to councillors’ ability to raise matters via the formal Notice of Motion method and to ensure council information was quickly made available to the community.

Cr Gill was endorsing a stance of Cr Fraser’s – that secrecy should be kept to a minimum in council’s relationship with the community, a stance Bandicoot enthusiastically supports, and not just because he is a journalist. Openness and transparency are bedrock requirements in democratic government.

Katharine GrahamOne now-retired councillor, and some colleagues, certainly did not subscribe to this view, advocating that every issue be decided before a council meeting opened, with the intention of reducing meetings to a succession of “moved-seconded-carried” decisions, with no debate.

That is the starting point for any tyranny, petty or grand. Bandicoot, ever the realist, backs the sentiment of the great American publisher of The Washington Post, Katharine Graham.

“We live in a dirty and dangerous world,” she once remarked. “There are some things the general public does not need to know, and shouldn’t. I believe democracy flourishes when the government can take legitimate steps to keep its secrets and when the Press can decide whether to print what it knows.”

Richard NixonMs Graham was well acquainted with the dirty and dangerous world. She was running the Post at the time of Watergate when, between 1972 and 1976, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein broke the biggest story in American politics.

Beginning with the investigation of a “third-rate burglary” of the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate complex, Woodward and Bernstein uncovered a system of political “dirty tricks” and crimes that eventually led to the resignation of President, Richard Milhous Nixon – the only president to resign from office.

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