Macedon Ranges has joined a chorus of local councils demanding answers on a major proposal to reintroduce single-member ward structures state-wide.
The change would likely carve Macedon Ranges into nine council wards with individual representation, but the restructure call has been widely criticised as ‘a step backwards’.
Macedon Ranges Council has called for choice over a “unilateral move to a one-size-fits-all model” in a submission compiled by chief executive Margot Stork to go before councillors on Wednesday.
Ms Stork said the structural change “seems to fly in the face of the recent consistent movement toward more multi-councillor ward models”.
“Councillors are required to consider decision-making in a holistic sense,” she said.
“It seems counter intuitive to mandate representation to single councillor wards unless a particular municipality and its councillors/community are seeking that change.
“It does not appear to be based on evidence that a uniform model is either required or optimum.”
Restructure flaws highlighted include geographical difficulties in attending events with no one to share the load, problems if a councillor is absent for any time and discouragement of potential candidates if there is a long-term recognised incumbent.
Other councils to question the move include Ballarat, Darebin, Surf Coast and Mitchell, some siting ‘single-ward mentality’, and even potential to increase corruption, as concerns.
The state government removed single-member wards from Geelong City Council following the council’s dismissal in 2016 for being dysfunctional and issues around bullying.
A commission of inquiry found the single-member ward structure had the “effect of undermining good governance” and compromised decision-making.
The call for blanket council restructures was among six new reforms Local Government Minister Adem Somyurek proposed in June as part of a Local Government Bill to enter Parliament later this year.
Mr Somyurek said the reforms aimed to “make councils more accountable to their communities between elections, improving councillor behaviour and lifting standards”.
Other reforms include mandatory councillor training as a pre-condition of nomination, improving councillor conduct, a donation reform and community accountability.
The reforms seek greater accountability of councillors with tougher consequence for serious misconduct and introduction of community initiated commissions of inquiry.
A community petition finding a councillor has failed to provide good governance or failed to comply with governance direction would trigger such an inquiry.
Ms Stork said vexatious petitions, lack of transparency, politically motivated petitions and the potential reputational damage to councillors and staff were cause for concern.
“No matter what the outcome of a commission inquiry, there is the potential to cause irreversible reputational damage to individuals involved directly or indirectly in the process.
“How is government going to deal with the perception that the VEC acceptance of a petition indicates some wrongdoing when the VEC has no investigative role at all?”
Ms Stork called for the highest degree of scrutiny at every step and the ability to stop vexatious processes at the first opportunity.
Ms Stork also highlighted the 25 per cent threshold required to trigger a commission enquiry put councils with lower population bases at risk of a greater number of enquiries, while larger local government areas may never successfully achieve the threshold.
Macedon Ranges’ has also not supported the donation reform, which includes banned foreign donations, individual donations capped at $1000, the gift threshold to be lowered from $500 to $250, and councils required to have a gift register and policy.
The submission will be considered by councillors at their ordinary meeting on Wednesday.
Councillors share concerns
The Midland Express sought personal opinion on the reforms from all Macedon Ranges Shire councillors last week.
Mayor Janet Pearce echoed the concerns outlined in a submission compiled by CEO Margot Stork.
Cr Pearce felt it was a “positive submission” that raised important questions particularly around two key issues in councillor accountability and call for single-member wards.
East ward councillor Bill West said he was puzzled as to why the state government sought to impose single-member wards across the state, suggesting more flexibility was needed.
“In Macedon Ranges I feel the existing system (three wards each with three councillors) is preferable to nine single-representative wards. The loads can be shared more easily in a multi-councillor ward,” he said.
“There’s never been a push at local level to revert back to single-member wards. That’s going backwards when the trend has been to go the other way.”
Cr West said some of the other proposed reforms put forward “certainly have merit”.
The six new reforms were introduced in June this year while the remainder of the bill had been developed over a three-year period with ongoing community consultation.
Cr Jennifer Anderson said the limited timeframe meant many in the community were not fully aware of the proposals.
“There hasn’t really been a chance for that conversation and broader community consultation,” she said.
Cr Anderson shared some of the concerns highlighted in the submission including councillor accountability.
Crs Helen Radnedge and Henry Bleeck reserved their comments. Crs Mandi Mees, Andrew Twaits, Roger Jukes and Natasha Gayfer did not respond before going to press.
The submission has been added as an urgent business item for councillors to consider at their ordinary council meeting this Wednesday. All feedback is due to the state government by July 31.
Rewind to 2005
Macedon Ranges Shire Council was not always of a three-councillor ward structure.
The Victorian Electoral Commission introduced the change in 2005 despite rejection by councillors of the time who fought to keep the nine-ward single-councillor structure.
Then councillors had argued they could more easily develop an intimate knowledge of their ward and bring this to the council table. They argued the single councillor wards also offered greater accountability.
At the time the VEC determined that structure was “not desirable” as it infringed communities of interest.
It considered three-councillor wards would encourage councillors to have a broad strategic focus and diverse representation, offering constituents choice of three councillors for each ward.
The VEC stated another advantage was the likely stable ward boundaries and promoted councillors working together to share the workload.