Redland City Council must review the Council division boundaries before the next election in May 2016. This is because at least one division (Number 5) will exceed the average number of electors by more than 10%.
It seems that the electoral redistribution process will be combined with a proposed reduction in the number of councillors, from 10 to 8 or perhaps 6.
A report to the Council Meeting on 12 November 2014 (item 11.2.1) noted that councillors in Redland City represent fewer people than councillors in most other cities in Queensland. The implied suggestion was that our Councillors should have to work harder by representing more people.
So a game of musical chairs may be played, with at least two seats to be removed before the next election.
Is this a good idea?
Is it about the cost of Councillors or the value of representation?
In theory by having fewer councillors the City would save a little bit of money on salaries and benefits plus the cost of providing administrative support.
Of course if that was the only consideration logic would suggest keep reducing the number and save more money. But there are reasons why we have councillors and we need to consider the benefits they should offer
- Inform the local community about Council issues and represent the local community’s concerns to Council
- Participate in making policy and expenditure decisions as a member of the Council which meets twice a month
If we have fewer councillors each representing more electors then simple maths suggests that each Councillor will be a little less accessible when it comes to providing information and representing their local community. Will a 10 or 20% increase in the number of electors per councillor result in a major reduction in accessibility? Probably not, but this may depend on how the division boundaries are drawn. For example, if all the islands were lumped into one division then the councillor for this division would have a much larger travel workload than any other councillor.
Is it about the cost of Councillors or the quality of decisions?
Of more concern is the potential for a smaller council to produce less well considered decisions due to lack of diversity in membership. History shows that a forum in which ideas are contested and debated leads to better decisions…and that is a better measure of a Council than cost. Another potential flaw of a tighter group is the Abilene Paradox to which smaller groups are more prone. In the current Council it is rare for a contentious issue to be decided unanimously which in a democracy is a good thing. With a smaller Council there is a greater risk that a particular faction will be able to achieve a clean sweep. If this were to happen public disclosure and discussion of issues could be reduced with more and more matters being decided behind closed doors away from the glare of public scrutiny.
So although fewer Councillors might save the City’s ratepayers a small amount of money, this benefit could be offset by poorly considered investments or other major economic decisions to be expected from a Council that is less accountable. But the benefits, savings and costings should be assessed and put to the community and not determined on the basis of less is best (or even cheaper).
This point was illustrated at the Council’s General Meeting in December. It appeared that all councillors were set to give a major infrastructure discount to a developer until one councillor argued that their was no legal reason for doing so. The council then flipped its decision and canned the discount potentially saving the city over a million dollars. With a smaller more tightly controlled council such divergent thinking may be less likely.
Is there is more than meets the eye
In considering the number of councillors for Redland City some questions to be considered include:
- Are the arguments for any change to the current number (10) well argued based on solid evidence and consideration of all factors?
- Will the community be given an opportunity to consider and comment on any proposed change to the number of councillors?
- Do all current councillors support any proposed change?
- Do the roles of our Councillors need to be “modernised” in line with contemporary community expectations and needs?
- Will the community and its views be part of the decision making?
Divisional boundaries and communities of interest
Once there is a decision on the “right” number of councillors for Redland city we need to consider the process for redrawing the division boundaries.
At Federal and state levels of government there is much care taken to ensure that the process of redrawing boundaries is done in an impartial manner. This is to ensure that boundaries are not biased to suit any particular party or individual by gerrymandering. For local government elections the process appears less clear. The Council (Mayor and CEO) can produce a report on proposed boundaries and with support from the Minister for Local Government this can then be put to the Local Government Change Commission for review. The Change Commission may hold a public hearing but the Local Government Act gives the Minister the power to direct the Change Commission “to conduct its assessment of the proposed local government change in a particular way”. So the number of divisions and the boundaries could be revised to suit a Mayor and her faction with the community being kept in the dark.
Equally divisional boundaries are not just a numbers game. Redlands is not a city in the traditional sense with a CBD, Redlands is a city of several centres…Capalaba, Cleveland, Wellington Point, Birkdale, Redland Bay, Mount Cotton and so on. Each centre has a sense of place and sense of community and Councillors are expected to enrich and sustain these differences.
However, there are many questions that need to be addressed in the redrawing of divisional boundaries and any move to reduce the number of Divisions. Equally, there is nothing about the current arrangements that should be set in stone. A discussion about the democratic mechanisms of the City is surely a sign of a healthy democracy.
Where to next?
In relation to the draft City Plan the Mayor said (Redland City Bulletin 10 December 2012) “I will not be drawn into simple answers to complex reality” and “it is our job and that of the media to start educating the community on who does what and how they do it”. Certainly the delivery of durable and meaningful democratic reforms is even more important than City Plan so we congratulate Councillor Williams on her foresight.
In the next few weeks Redlands 2030 will present some ideas on alternatives to new divisional boundaries, some ideas will look at renewing democracy, community participation and our democratic institutions. We expect this might generate discussion and options that the community and Council can at least consider. Any ideas or examples from other jurisdictions will be welcomed, send your suggestions (with citations) to firstname.lastname@example.org