THE power to decide the penalty for councillors who breach Orange City Council’s code of conduct should be taken away from their fellow councillors and handled independently, according to deputy mayor Jeff Whitton.
Cr Whitton’s suggestion follows auditor-general Peter Achterstraat’s report calling for changes to the Local Government Act to give the Division of Local Government (DLG) more power to demand councils comply with the rules.
Under the current system an independent Conduct Review Committee appointed by the council decides whether code of conduct complaints against councillors should be upheld, but it is then up to councillors to act on the committee’s recommendations.
Cr Whitton wants the system changed.
“If there is a councillor subject to a code of conduct and it’s upheld, it comes back to their peers to make the judgement on the penalty,” he said.
“Once you go through the whole investigation it’s then left up to councillors to decide, but I think the independent body should decide on what the penalty is.”
Cr Whitton said there was a risk councillors could decide on penalties for their fellow elected representatives based on personal reasons.
“They might know that person and they’ll say ‘she’ll be right mate’ or there could be someone in the council who they don’t particularly like,” he said.
“A lot of councillors that make mistakes don’t generally make them for the purposes of misleading the community but certainly there are some.
“If you do step over the line too far the rules are there to penalise them.”
In the report, Mr Achterstraat said the DLG found it difficult to address complaints about the behaviour of individual councillors.
“[The] DLG’s inability to address councillor misbehaviour is a concern,” he said.
“Left unresolved, matters can deteriorate and disrupt council operations, as meetings break down and decisions are not made.”
In stark contrast to NSW, other states can impose hefty fines of up to $84,000 and even jail sentences on councillors who misbehave.
But Cr Whitton said the maximum penalty of five years disqualification for NSW councillors who breached their duty was sufficient.