Sunday, May 26, 2024

VLGA calls for council culture clean-up

The Victorian Local Government Association (VLGA) says it is concerned about recent reports of poor conduct among the state’s cohort of local government councillors.

“It is disheartening to see essential and impactful work undermined by workplace behaviour that falls short of the standards of dignity, fairness, objectivity, courtesy and respect that community members should expect,” said VLGA Chief Executive Officer, Kathryn Arndt.

“Local councils, as the arm of government closest to the people, are responsible for the delivery of a vast array of services and facilities that support the health and wellbeing of their local communities.

“Over the past two-year period and throughout the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic, this essential service delivery was maintained across all 79 councils in Victoria – highlighting the important role that our councils undertake and demonstrating the commitment and skill required of councillors and council staff.”

Ms Arndt say that beyond the legal obligations of councils to maintain safe workplaces, nurturing a culture of civil conduct inside and outside of the council chamber was central to good governance.

“There is a difference between the ‘cut and thrust’ of political debate and conduct which threatens the ability of councillors and council officers to do their jobs.”

She said the VLGA hoped to see these “complex dynamics” addressed through the Victorian Local Government Culture Review Project.

“However, the VLGA submits that in the absence of any genuine community and sector appetite for structural reform, we should recognise that councils operate in a politicised model.”

“And, through a number of mechanisms, provide councillors with the tools to deal constructively with the tensions that arise from working in such an environment.”

She said the VLGA wanted to see a number of outcomes from the Culture Review Project, including:
• A raised awareness of the roles, responsibilities and processes of councils for both candidates and the community (voters);
• Improved mandatory training for candidates – not just programs for women – but for men and women – who wish to stand for local government;
• Processes to support diversity and inclusion amongst the councillor groups;
• Supports for mayors to perform their leadership roles;
• Supports for CEOs to most effectively and safely perform their roles – the VLGA would like to see some structural changes in regard to the CEO employment relationship;
• A culture of training and improved governance resources for councillors – the community should demand that councillors invest (as part of the budget process) in professional development to enhance their performance as councillors;
• An emphasis on building conflict resolution skills for councillors (whose role it is to disagree with each other at times);
• Increased external supports through expanded roles for monitors and governance organisations such as the VLGA.

“It is evident that change is required to ensure that debate and interactions avoid hostility and aggression that compromises the ability of councils to perform at their best – in addition to discouraging people to stand [in local government elections] in the future,” said Ms Arndt.

Last month, two councillors at City of Wyndham Council wrote to Victorian Local Government Minister, Melissa Horne, asking her to appoint an independent monitor to oversee the council following allegations of bullying; while in May, Stonnington councillor, Alexander Lew, was barred from social media and ordered to repeat his councillor induction training after he abused a ratepayer online.

In its submission to the Culture Review Project, the VLGA wrote: “To frame our comments, the VLGA submits that organisational culture is vitally important to organisational outcomes and sustainability, but extraordinarily difficult to compartmentalise or to define.

“By its nature, culture is a combination of the norms of behaviour evident in an organisation. It therefore needs to be looked at in the light of context and those patterns of behaviour.

“Culture is not necessarily ‘one’ problem or opportunity to address. It is often the
combination of a range of smaller issues that have led to observed patterns and norms
of behaviour, albeit, the context or system in which an organisation operates may also
influence behaviourial pattern which is evidenced by common themes across the
sector.”

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