Is reducing the number of councillors the highest priority in improving local government in Redland City.
It seems that the Mayor and her faction are set on cutting elected representatives from ten to eight or possibly six. Redlands2030 has already commented on this issue in two earlier posts:
But would residents and ratepayers be better served by other changes to the way our local council operates? Here are a few different local council “models” for consideration and discussion.
A City-wide “division”
This model accepts that all Councillors should be involved in the “big” issues. The parochialism of divisions may not serve the “big issues” well. Last year at least one Councillor made a critical decision that was essentially at odds with his election stance but it impacted directly on other divisions. In spite of his pre-election commitments he proudly asserted his decision was on the basis it didn’t affect his own division. Such short term and parochial processes should be exposed and then eliminated.
At present, the only “whole-of-city” representative on Council is the Mayor. This necessarily limits the skill, ability and experience available to determine “whole-of-city” issues. Yet by definition, a decision of the Council is a whole of city decision. Divisional parochialism has real problems, although representatives also have a community they can “get to know”.
This model would help sustain different points of view at both the divisional level and at council as a whole. How about 4-5 divisions each of two Councillors? This approach might ensure that a broader range of people and views are brought into the decision making. Such an approach also helps counter the influence of campaigns that are funded by sectoral interests. It also brings competing ideas and contestability into policy making…often touted as the strengths of our market economy. In the same way, contestability of ideas is a strength of democracy.
The Mayor is elected from and by the Councillors
This approach brings the leadership role and negotiation skills of a Mayor to the fore. The move (in Queensland) to directly elect Mayors is a fairly recent trend. The approach is fundamentally at odds with the Westminster system whereby the parliamentary leader is elected by members of the government. The benefits of directly electing a mayor could be questioned.
In recent elections across Queensland the costs associated with a popularly elected Mayor has put paid to candidates other than those with personal means or those with well resourced backers. A proper evaluation could question the costs and implications of campaigning for office under the current direct mayoral election model.
Multi-Councillor divisions who then elect the Mayor
This model combines both of the above.
Part time Councillors
Queensland’s move to full time Councillors (and Mayor) has had mixed results and has possibly seen professional and business people vacate the “field” of local government. While some Councillors appear to work hard to advance the interests of their constituents, others do not seem so intent on delivering “value for money”. Having full time Councillors is not a model well entrenched across local governments in Australia. It is reasonable to question if a return to part-time councillors, and perhaps mayor, might be better for the city’s residents and ratepayers.
When discussed on Radio 612 ABC the comments by Cr Alan Beard – Deputy Mayor, Councillor for Division 8 were enlightening. He said words to the effect ” I have been here for 15 years now and the role of Councillor has significantly changed in that time. Much of the role of the Councillor has been delegated to officers at senior management level. The amount of hours required to do the role have probably significantly reduced and the evidence would suggest at the moment that we are probably over represented.”
It is reasonable to ask whether the goal of cost savings should be made through the reduction in Councillor remuneration commensurate with the “significantly reduced hours” as asserted by Cr Beard. Referring to the Councillor Remuneration for 2013-14 as reported in the Annual Report the direct savings resulting from a reduction of two Councillors would be about $220,000 per annum. This same saving could be achieved by reducing the remuneration paid to the Mayor and 10 Councillors by about 16%.
The right number in a team for good decisions
Questions about how democracy works at the local government level needs to go beyond a singular debate about number of divisions and the number of Councillors.
A greater concern than the number of Councillors is the number of “heads” needed for “good” decision making, AND in addition, ensuring decisions are made in the public interest. There are various forms of research which point to a number (7-8 being cited by some). Others point to the skill of the decision makers rather than the number. In our Council there is also the need to accommodate leave of absences, conflicts of interest and even those “nice” people who get elected but don’t speak. Given the risk to decision making the existing structure is familiar to most people and one might ask”if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.
Of concern in the current debate is the assumption that cost alone should drive a decision to reduce the number of Councillors.
Redland City’s current Council has progressively reduced the number and times that Council Meetings are open to the public. The hours under public scrutiny were drastically reduced since it took office. During 2014 the current Williams Council held about two meetings per month with slightly less than 3 hours of proceedings open to the Community. This compares poorly with the typically 7 to 10 meetings and about 10 hours of proceedings open to the public per month over the period of the Santagiuliana, Seccombe and Hobson Councils. It appears Councillors now have little need to properly prepare for meetings as discussion of Council business is carried out behind closed doors. A variety of views in those meetings seems an imperative given the current reduced levels of public scrutiny.
When covering this story the Redland City Bulletin reported “it is still unknown if axing divisions or cutting the number of councillors will be put up for community consideration”. It is hard to contemplate a decision that is so close to the core of representative democracy than the number of its representatives. To have such a critical decision made by the current Council or by executive fiat ……without any community input….. is considered an attack on democracy.
Improving governance is not just a numbers game! Community consultation should be mandatory!
There are many options by which communities select or elect local representatives and these should be canvassed as a means of improving our democratic processes, improving representation AND looking at efficiency targets. The challenge should be about a group that makes decisions that are: more productive, more accurate, high-quality solutions, faster, more effective, more efficient, etc.
Our Council’s staff, should test all options in any report to Council on the broader issues and encourage community discussion and input…before a final decision is made.
Future Redlands2030 posts will examine issues and options that could be considered as a means of helping make the Redlands a leader in renewing democracy and our democratic institutions. Any suggestions for a better political structure (with citations, if possible) would be welcomed by sending suggestions to: firstname.lastname@example.org
COMMUNITY ACTION: If you are concerned about your Council’s decision making processes, its transparency, or accountability – then tell them. Email/phone/txt your representative Councillor and/or the Mayor. See contact details on Redlands2030 Council Contacts page.