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Department of Premier and Cabinet

Stage 3: Forming an opinion

The third stage of the decision making process gives you the opportunity to form opinions on the proposals before you make a decision. This stage allows you to debate the issues in the council meeting as part of the decision making process. A key part of this stage is the council workshop.

SCENARIO19

A councillor is insisting that council make a particular decision on the hotly contested issue of the location for the new municipal offices. The councillor’s main argument in support of this position is that ‘it’s just common sense’.

There can often be a number of legitimate views on an issue even when there is good information and advice. Labelling one view as ‘common sense’ can imply that all the other views are not valid and that their proponents lack common sense. The debate then often focuses on the meaning of ‘common sense’ and personalities rather than on the issue itself.

To improve the governance in this situation the council should:

  • ensure there is good process in place for making decisions;
  • base the decision on advice and information, rather than on subjective views, such as ‘it’s just common sense’;
  • ensure there is a good consultation process to find out what stakeholders really think;
  • focus on the issues rather than on personal opinion; and
  • provide opportunities for all councillors to voice their opinion – the mayor’s role is important in providing leadership in the council.
What are council workshops?

Council workshops are informal meetings, held for the purpose of providing elected members with information on specific matters. Workshop procedure is not governed by the Act or the Meeting Regulations. Council workshops provide the time needed to explore important matters in detail.

Individual councils are entitled to hold workshops as and when they deem it necessary. Workshops are generally closed to the public, although a council may invite the public or individuals to attend if it wishes to do so.

Regulation 8 of the Meeting Regulations requires general managers to report in each ordinary meeting agenda the date and purpose of any council workshop held since the last meeting.

SCENARIO20

A council regularly uses workshops to work through the draft agenda for the next council meeting. In these sessions councillors develop a consensus position on all the key issues in the agenda. There is little or no debate at the next council meeting, as the elected members already know all the outcomes.

Council workshops should be used to ensure that elected members have all the information they need to develop an opinion on key issues. This information can consist of research, background information and the results of any consultation processes.

Workshops should not be used to debate or develop a collective position on issues. This should happen in council meetings where the decision making process is transparent and open.

To improve governance in this situation:

  • elected members and the administration should understand and agree on the role of workshops in the decision making process;
  • the administration should provide information to elected members in workshops; and
  • elected members should ask questions in briefings to satisfy themselves that they have sufficient information to form an opinion on the issues in question.
Information requests

The Local Government Act entitles councillors access to two kinds of information:

The processes for requesting these kinds of information are separate, but there are important similarities:

  • The information or documents must be in the possession of the council.
  • Requests for information or documents are to be made in writing to the general manager.
  • Confidentiality – if the general manager considers information or documents are confidential, under section 28C of the Local Government Act he or she may require councillors to give an undertaking to maintain that confidentiality. If the councillor refuses, the general manager may withhold the information or document.
  • Pecuniary interests – the general manager may refuse to provide information or documents if the councillor has declared a pecuniary interest related to the subject of the information or documents.
  • If the information or documents are given to one councillor, the general manager must make them available to other councillors on request.

For more information, see the information sheet entitled Access to Information for Councillors, which is available on the Local Government Division’s website.

You should ensure that any requests to council officers for information or reports are legitimate, lawful, related to your role and directed to the appropriate officer depending on the protocols of your council. It is also important that council officers are appropriately responsive to information requests, as councillors largely rely on the administration for information and other kinds of support

Requests which fall under the category of file trawling or ‘fishing’ expeditions are not appropriate. The administration as a whole, and council officers specifically, should be wary of providing information for political disputes between councillors.The council and the administration can develop protocols to ensure that everyone understands when and what kind of information will be provided to individual councillors. Some councils also use self-regulation, such as a register to log all the information requests by individual councillors.

[19] This content has been reproduced with permission from the Good Governance Guide © MAV, VLGA, LGV & LGPro 2012.

[20] This content has been reproduced with permission from the Good Governance Guide © MAV, VLGA, LGV & LGPro 2012.