Bundaberg Regional Council.
Bundaberg Regional Council. Mike Knott BUN210918BRC1

OPINION: Do we expect too much from our councillors?

IT struck me the other day just how much the world of local government is changing.

And it's left me asking do we expect too much of our councillors?

There can be little doubt that the actions of elected representatives in Ipswich and Logan, and alleged behaviour of a minority of others in different parts of the state, have forced changes to how councils operate.

Further changes have been proposed to local government legislation (Belcarra) and these are set to be debated by state parliament soon.

They have created an environment where councillors are re-understanding their roles and the community hasn't really been brought along for the journey about what is expected of our elected representatives.

This week Bundaberg councillors unanimously voted to approve changes in response to state legislation requirements.

Mayor Jack Dempsey has rightly explained moves to provide delegatory authority to the CEO in certain areas have occurred over time and are aimed towards greater transparency. The pendulum has been swinging this way for some time, step by step.

During my brief time in local government (at a council far removed from this one), it always intrigued me that councillors could, and at times would, overrule officer recommendations.

I have seen some councillors - an absolute minority - grapple with complex concepts that were second nature to the officers who had spent years in training and in the field.

Yet a councillor would vote against the officer's recommendation and I'd argue it was not on the grounds of a principled position representing the community.

It has been this group of people who for many decades have made crucial decisions that shape our community.

And in many ways rightly so, as they are the ones who front the electorate on voting day.

But now I sense a hesitancy among our elected representatives. It's a hesitancy to speak out and act on behalf of the community for fear of saying the wrong thing and ending up in a world of trouble.

Councillors have to tread a thin line between being the voice of the organisation and the voice of the people - and the safest way at the moment is not to risk stepping over the mark.

There have been recent cases here in Bundaberg where I've been left scratching my head that a councillor has been unable or unwilling to talk on what I view as relatively straightforward matters.

But this isn't any grand plan of silencing.

It was only recently that the Office of the Independent Assessor (OIA) cleared a Bundaberg councillor of wrongdoing in relation to their involvement in the controversial Jewel development.

That would no doubt have put that councillor under a lot of pressure as they went about their business.

Given the circumstances and the headlines this issue made at the time I'd think all councillors would have felt under a cloud. It is a bizarre system. After coming into existence this year, the OIA received more than 500 councillor complaints in its first three months.

These days a councillor can't have a quick chat to a staff member on a problem someone in the community has. It all has to go through official channels. From my experience the huge majority of people who enter into the world of local government are good people - they work hard and genuinely have the interests of the community at heart.

Council is no longer just about roads, rates and rubbish. We expect so much more, including economic growth.

But their changing roles and seemingly less capacity to shape key decisions leads me to my question: Are we as a community unfairly asking too much of our councillors?

Earlier this year we reported councillors in Bundaberg get a base pay of $89,775 a year.

There wouldn't be too many of our councillors doing less than 60 hour weeks.

With a local government election just on seven months away, we should have clarity about what the future holds for our elected representatives.

Over coming days NewsMail senior reporter Chris Burns will look into the proposed legislation and speak to the key people to understand this fast-changing space.

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