Has Local Govt Minister begun reforming Councils?

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Not quite what we expected…

Not even a metropolitan Council….

But in what could be a sign of things to come the $100m Shire of Ashburton’s Council will be required to undergo  a make-over.

The Minister for Local Govt, Tony Simpson, has ordered the Council submit to a panel of “Mentors” for the next six months.

Officially the “critical issues” Ashburton will be required to shape up on are Council meeting formats, agenda distribution methodologies and “formal[ising] plans on how everyone is to communicate with each other”.

The Council doesn’t need “Mentors” for that – this is a nip’n’tuck job, surely – with much of the adjustments to take place behind the scenes.

But why “make over” the Shire of Ashburton?  It’s on fire for all the right reasons.

LATE NEWS:  The CEO of City of Kwinana, Neil Hartley, has resigned and will now head the Shire of Ashburton.  Mr Hartley’s reasons for leaving?  He believes his position would have been one of the first to go in the Council merger process. 

Smack bang in the middle of Chevron and Rio Tinto country, its revenues are rising at the rate of 40% a year.

The Councillors themselves seem savvy enough.  Many are long-term residents from the four towns the Shire covers.  Small business owners, they positioned themselves well to respond to the Boom.  Today, several are rumoured to be stock market whizzes.

When they smelled a rat, they commissioned a probity audit in to the Shire, responding to results by dismissing the CEO and moving immediately to address highlighted issues.

Popular with their constituents, when the Council  was eventually suspended, the people of  Onslow (one of four towns governed by the Shire) were so incensed, more signed a petition to that effect than had voted in the last local govt election!

All that wasn’t enough, it seems, for either the Dept of Local Govt or its former Minister, John Castrilli.  The Council was suspended for six months.

Yet no inquiry ensued – Councillors were merely required to undertake further training.

Then came the surprise announcement of the mentoring and the monitoring.

Presumably this is one of the ways  Minister Simpson plans to convert Ward Councillors to the “Board Members” he believes they should be.

One wonders how reflexive and resilient the “Boards” of future Councils are going to be able to be with this level of supervision and correction – especially when the Dept of Local Govt itself isn’t accountable to the public for its actions.

What happens if Ashburton’s Council gets a “D” on its report card in six months’ time?

Former Minister Castrilli even commented that the Council took “too long” to respond to the “show cause” notice as to why it shouldn’t be suspended.

Perhaps he wasn’t aware of the realities of being at the pointy end of a Boom – the Councillors live in four different towns, in a Shire half the size of Victoria, with day jobs and travel amounting to 1000 miles a month attending to their duties and constituents as it is, let alone having to rush around and prepare a properly constituted response as to why they shouldn’t be suspended.

Rumour has it Minister Simpson doesn’t agree with his predecessor’s decision to suspend the Council – but it doesn’t seem to count for much.

Ashburton’s latest indignity is another in a series of staccato responses the State Govt and/or its Local Govt agency has shown to local govt issues in the past three years:-

The City of Canning was suspended after the Mayor took his concerns about administration failures to the Minister for Local Govt.

Former Minister John Castrilli then made the poor decision to replace a Council representing 90,000 people with one part-time Commissioner leaving around 1/20th of people in Perth without community overseers in the process of local govt reform.

The Shire of Kalamunda, on the other hand, wasn’t suspended or investigated, despite discovering financial irregularities within its organisation.  Everyone seemed happy to leave it at the Shire dismissing its CEO and its President retiring after receiving a vote of No Confidence from the Council.

As for the Shire of Cue, so many elected representatives up and left then Minister Castrilli had no choice but to suspend the very idea of a Council.

Back to the Shire of Ashburton and although the results of its self-commissioned probity audit resulted in immediate and strong action similar to Kalamunda, the Council was suspended.

It’s bewildering enough wondering where the Dept of Local Govt is half the time, with so many problems apparently occurring on its watch – but what point does it serve to sporadically wave around the rule book in a time of reform?

Who is in control here, anyway?  The Dept of Local Govt or the Barnett Govt?

The question is getting louder now: “Does the Barnett Govt actually have a clear and coordinated plan to reform local govt, beyond the breathless anticipation of merger announcements, or will it continue to bunny hop its way through each stage?”.

Local govt reform isn’t going to be a quick project it can get out of the way early in its second term.

If the Barnett Govt doesn’t also start listening to the rising concerns of communities it wouldn’t normally hear from, like Onslow and the now democratically isolated people of Canning, it’ll need more than a few nip’n’tucks to get its look ready for the next election.

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