New policy a surprise for councillors

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ALL 11 of Mornington Peninsula Shire’s newly-elected councillors have been handed copies of a “Councillor and staff interactions policy”, which reminds them that the CEO is in charge of shire staff, not the ratepayer elected representatives.

Councillors were not consulted about the policy before it was drafted and will now have to consult council’s governance department who will decide whether a request by elected representatives will be granted or denied.

If a request is refused, councillors can raise the issue with council CEO Carl Cowie – the only officer appointed by councillors – or governance manager Joe Spiteri.

The policy states councillors and staff “are expected to conduct their interactions with each other with respect, professionalism, objectivity, honesty and high standards of ethical behaviour”.

Most of the rules laid out in the policy are already included in the Local Government Act and are covered by accepted workplace relations standards and the shire’s codes of conduct for councillors and staff.

Copies of the new policy were handed to councillors during one of nine scheduled induction sessions which began two days after the official declaration of results of the 22 October municipal elections.

The sessions have also included a briefing by a lawyer outlining the penalties – up to tens of thousands of dollars in fines and jail – facing councillors convicted for various breaches of the Local Government Act.

Three of the shire’s 11 councillors were re-elected, while two others have served previous terms as councillors.

The policy, which is “owned” by Mr Cowie according to documents handed to councillors, restates that penalties apply under the Local Government Act to councillors leaking or “making improper use” of confidential information.

It also lists “appropriate professional interactions between councillors and staff”, including complying with state and federal laws and not using council resources (staff, equipment, intellectual property) for electoral or other personal purposes.

Other appropriate behaviours are listed as the need for honesty and being courteous and not intimidating towards staff.

Shire staff, in their dealings with councillors, are to “fulfil their duty to act honestly and exercise a reasonable degree of care and diligence”.

The policy defines impropriety by a councillor as “behaviour that extracts a result that would be of benefit or gain to the perpetrator, which would otherwise not occur”.

Councillors will have crossed the line if they are found guilty of “disrespecting the professional opinion, skills or expertise of staff through intimidatory, bullying, harassing or disrespectful behaviour”.

Councillors are warned against pulling rank on staff to gain information or make decisions “outside the formal briefing or reporting processes”.

Councillors must follow a five-step process when making a request of staff.

Step three calls for advice to be sought from the governance department, which is followed by step four which says “management” will then decide if a request will be granted or denied.

As a further aid to councillors’ understanding of the policy, it includes a list of definitions for such actions as improper, influence, direction and interaction.

First published in the Western Port News – 22 November 2016

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