Second code of conduct stoush looming

A SECOND confrontation is looming between the Derwent Valley Council and State Parliament over the issue of the model code of conduct for councillors. Three years after running foul of the State Government after repeatedly refusing to replace its own code of conduct with the parliament-mandated model, the council has now deferred its decision on the revised version.

“The updated version of the code of conduct is probably worse than the first version,” Cr Paul Belcher said at the February council meeting. Cr Belcher said he was remained opposed to the code’s requirement for councillors to obtain the permission of the general manager before speaking to council staff, saying this was a restriction on councillors’ ability to perform their role.

“The whole thing about getting permission from the general manager is a form of dictatorship, I believe,” he said. Councillor Julie Triffett had moved that the new code be adopted, seconded by Cr Rachel Power, but chose not to open the debate on the matter.

After hearing Cr Belcher’s comments, Cr Triffett said she did not have a problem asking the general manager for permission to speak to staff, but she did have a concern about the updated code of conduct. “What I do have a problem with is the introduction of a ‘reasonable person test’,” she said. “I don’t know what a ‘reasonable person’ is. I mean, I think I know, but my idea of a reasonable person might not be the same as someone else’s idea of a reasonable person.”

Cr Triffett also said she was surprised that “potential perceived conflict of interest” remained in the updated code. Mayor Ben Shaw said it was his understanding it had in fact been removed. General manager Greg Winton said he had taken up an offer by the Director of Local Government to visit councils to  go through the changes to the code in more detail and was trying to find a suitable date.

Cr Triffett asked if the council was likely to find itself in trouble again if it failed to adopt the new code by the deadline imposed by Parliament. “It has to be adopted by council, by legislation,” Mr Winton said. “If you chose not to, then I would need to report that to the director.”

Cr Belcher then moved that the item be deferred until after councillors had been briefed by Local Government director Alex Tay. This was seconded by Cr Martyn Evans. Cr Rachel Power expressed concern that the council might not make a decision on the matter before the deadline, which Mr Winton said would fall on March 10.

Mr Winton said a month’s delay would probably not be a problem, and mayor Ben Shaw said the previous council had delayed its decision on the first model code of conduct for about six months before complying. Both said the council’s major issue in 2016 had been the legislated requirement for councillors to vote in favour of the code whether or not they agreed with it, and the same applied now to the revised document.

The motion to defer consideration of the revised code of conduct was approved by the majority of councillors, with Cr Triffett abstaining. The council’s delaying tactics in 2016 was one of the issues that led to Local Government Minister Peter Gutwein commissioning an inquiry into the council that resulted in the council as a whole receiving a reprimand for its failure to comply with the legislation.

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