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Councils in crisis: local government system in need of reform -

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JIM WALEY: As long as our bins get emptied and our parks get mowed, most of us pay scant attention to the mundane politics of local councils. But lately, it's been impossible to ignore the ugly stories coming out of some town halls - stories of bomb threats, brawls and bitter personality clashes disrupting the business of local government.

Several States are now demanding greater efficiency from our councillors and imposing reforms on town halls often resistant to change.

In our cover story, Sunday's Janine Perrett reports on councils in crisis.

JANINE PERRETT: It all looks innocent enough - an ordinary council meeting in any suburb on any given night around Australia, but behind the pomp and ceremony, it's far from civil.

BARBARA COORIE: I would ask you to retract that latter comment that you made.

UNIDENTIFIED: What comment? Which comment? Which comment?

BARBARA COORIE: You inferred that I did not make any sense or make any intelligent debate.

UNIDENTIFIED: That's correct.

BARBARA COORIE: I would ask you to retract that.

UNIDENTIFIED: I think that is offensive and he should retract that. That's it. Yes, you'll retract the latter because I'm happy to say that Councillor Coorie makes a great contribution.

JOHN GORRIE: I am running this show, not you. Sit down.

UNIDENTIFIED: You don't know how to run it. Just wait.

JOHN GORRIE: Sit down and run your real estate agency.

FRANK SARTOR: I think all that behaviour is appalling and unfortunate and lowers local government.

UNIDENTIFIED: The Liberal-Labor alliance has voted to ensure that we are not on the budgetary committee, Mr Mayor.

UNIDENTIFIED: Take your seat, please. Continue, Councillor.....

UNIDENTIFIED: Mr Mayor, I believe you are being once again unfair.

REG WITHERS: Local government is very hard to shift. Institutions which won't reform from within, always get reformed from without.

UNIDENTIFIED: It is only an inquiry to find out if this council deserves to be sacked or not.

JANINE PERRETT: Councils around Australia are feeling the tremors of a local government revolution. From Perth to Bendigo to the Blue Mountains, councils are increasingly under fire.

EXTRACT TCN-9 News Tape April 1994: The bomb threat was received by the 'Blue Mountains Gazette' in June last year. The caller threatened to blow up the newspaper, the Blue Mountains Council chambers and local councillor, John Pascoe. While the threat turned out to be a hoax, it forced the evacuation of the council and the newspaper - 15 months after a real bomb attack during a regular council meeting.

JANINE PERRETT: And some councils are self-destructing.

EXTRACT

NEWSREADER: Burwood's deputy Mayor was in court today in a sequel to a rowdy council meeting last month. John Fisk has been accused of head-butting another councillor.

JANINE PERRETT: Burwood Council in Sydney's inner west has become synonymous with the worst excesses of local government.

PEGGY BROWN: Burwood is giving local government, generally, a bad name. There are elements of every council in Burwood. We are typical of what can happen with endorsed political parties seriously entering local government.

JANINE PERRETT: Councillor Peggy Brown and her 11 colleagues are facing dismissal after a public inquiry heard allegations of everything from physical assault to drunkenness and corruption.

Tell me how it's felt to have all the dirty linen of this council aired in public?

PEGGY BROWN: It's been embarrassing. It's been depressing. It's been necessary, and I don't think it's over yet. But there were things happening at this council that had to be made public for the sake of what was happening to the community.

JANINE PERRETT: Yet, on the eve of the inquiry, the councillors had no qualms in allowing the cameras to witness a typical performance.

JOHN FISK: The councillors in this council that wanted to stop prayers and wanted to stop Burwood Council celebrating Anzac Day. Point of order, Mr Mayor.

UNIDENTIFIED: Point of order. Yes, Councillor ............

UNIDENTIFIED: I do not sit here and listen to the issue here before us is advice tomorrow night. Now for someone out on bail, I don't think you should be talking about Anzac Day and prayers. You should be out of this chamber.

JANINE PERRETT: And even on the night of the inquiry, they were at it again. This time the residents got in on the act.

PEGGY BROWN: Well, we'll just call the police. If you want to start threatening the residents of this community, I'll just go and ring 000 and get the police up here.

JANINE PERRETT: While Peggy Brown is a practising behavioural psychologist, she failed as far as Burwood Council was concerned. In fact, she sided with her colleagues in blocking the services of a professional mediator, Christine James. But after viewing the Burwood tapes, this consultant in conflict resolution doubts she could have done anything any way.

Did you feel you could deal with them? Could you help their problem?

CHRISTINE JAMES: No, I don't think so because collectively they don't really want to fix it. It's not important to them because each one still thinks that their side is right and that the other side is wrong and that the solution to the problem is for them to win.

JANINE PERRETT: Does it surprise you that meetings like this can lead to violence?

CHRISTINE JAMES: No, not at all. It's incredibly frustrating. I mean, I feel violent just watching it. Very frustrating.

BARBARA COORIE: Mr Mayor, unfortunately we are going down the same track as Burwood and I see that we will go through the same experience. I make the plea to the Minister to intervene with this council.

JOHN GORRIE: For the third time, excuse me, would you resume your seat.

BARBARA COORIE: You will not develop this site to the way you want to develop it.

JOHN GORRIE: Would you resume your seat!

JANINE PERRETT: 'Canterbury Tales' 1994-style; it's a story as raucous as Chaucer could ever have imagined, thanks to Mayor John Gorrie and his bete noir, Barbara Coorie.

BARBARA COORIE: Must I be abused from the chair?

JOHN GORRIE: You're not being abused.

BARBARA COORIE: Must I be abused by the chair.

JOHN GORRIE: I quietened everyone down for you.

BARBARA COORIE: My personal opinion is that local government is the most dangerous arena to be operating in as a public official.

JANINE PERRETT: There was one famous case. You actually went to court. You and the Mayor actually went to court, didn't you?

BARBARA COORIE: That's right.

JANINE PERRETT: What happened there?

BARBARA COORIE: Well, basically, I was returning from the buffet table after making a selection of food and I was attacked by the Mayor. He grabbed me by the arm, and he said a .. he made a disgusting comment to me and, basically, I was in fear at that point. Nobody in the function room offered any help.

JOHN GORRIE: The magistrate said in his opinion .. he was of the opinion that I had insulted her, despite the fact that she could not produce a witness, and he never had any. It was his opinion.

JANINE PERRETT: But you lost the case, though, didn't you.

JOHN GORRIE: And no conviction was recorded.

BARBARA COORIE: Mr Mayor, I am trying to ask you some questions. I had the deputy mayor here caucusing openly.

JOHN GORRIE: Okay. Continue to ask.

BARBARA COORIE: Right.

JOHN GORRIE: I can hear you.

BARBARA COORIE: Was the result .. well, I can't hear myself, sir, when I have other counsellors.....

JOHN GORRIE: Oh, we should be so lucky.

JANINE PERRETT: This is how local government looks to most ratepayers. Councillors can spend up to 20 hours a week or more on the mundane aspects of city governance: planning approvals; garbage services; dog leash laws; and on site inspections.

UNIDENTIFIED: An office and a home in here?

UNIDENTIFIED: Yes. In total 45 square metres, but it's been extended and added to.

UNIDENTIFIED: Well, we might hear from the neighbours now.

JANINE PERRETT: Yet it's still considered a voluntary job and they receive a mere $3,000 a year. There are some 900 councils in Australia with 9,000 councillors spending about $13 billion annually. Now most of that comes from the ratepayers, but the Federal Government also contributes more than $1 billion of taxpayers' money. For years nobody paid too much attention to what went on in these stuffy chambers, but now a rush of reform is breathing fresh air into local government.

LARRY HAND: Rodney, can you go outside and ask is there anyone outside to do with 40 Trouten(?) Street, Balmain?

JANINE PERRETT: Leichardt's Larry Hand is one of the new-look Mayors who prefers leather jackets to robes, but he still has to cope with the old guard.

UNIDENTIFIED: And this is the interesting thing about this sort of debate: nobody, not one person - some of them clapped in regard to markets....

LARRY HAND: Look, Councillor Horoglass(?) a point of order....

UNIDENTIFIED: This is a point of order. The point of order is....

LARRY HAND: I think the worst thing about being Mayor probably is occasionally some councillors don't really focus 100 per cent on issues and get a bit tied up with emotions and personality clashes and don't judge issues fully on the merits of them, but occasionally on who's putting forward the view.

UNIDENTIFIED: I was in a war for four years and there was a gentleman we were against us that was also had no regard for minorities. Have you recalled his name?

LARRY HAND: All mighty God, watch over all those serving the armed forces and those who still suffer disabilities through sickness or injuries sustained in war.

JANINE PERRETT: Larry Hand sees it as his civic duty. He quit his teaching job to become a full-time Mayor, with a $39,000 allowance.

LARRY HAND: I've set myself back quite a few years financially, but that's a judgment I made and no-one twisted my arm in the job to be here, so I'm not whingeing about it.

JANINE PERRETT: Is there potential for corruption with councillors who are paid very little money approving multi-million dollar developments?

LARRY HAND: Well, I think there is potential as there are in other spheres of government, but....

JANINE PERRETT: Have you ever been offered a bribe?

LARRY HAND: I've been offered a couple of bribes.

JANINE PERRETT: By developers?

LARRY HAND: By developers.

FRANK SARTOR: Developers, you see, can make a lot of money if they've got a very compliant council. And if you can buy a building or a piece of land with a certain height control or plot ratio control, and then get the control bent or changed, you can make a killing.

JANINE PERRETT: Sydney Lord Mayor, Frank Sartor, is acutely aware of the power of developers. He's about to undergo a challenge from Kathryn Greiner, wife of the former Premier. Her team, the so-called 'Sydney Alliance' was created by former State Liberal MP, Michael Yabsley, and is strongly backed by the developers.

FRANK SARTOR: It's a really important issue. You should ask Sydney Alliance whether they're going to be funded from the development or construction industry. And I think you'll find that they will.

JANINE PERRETT: However, Sunday was unable to question Mrs Greiner or any of her ticket because she admitted they don't have any policies yet. That didn't stop Mrs Greiner from inviting herself onto the head table the day Lord Mayor Sartor released his new 'Vision for Sydney' document.

FRANK SARTOR: What we want is a multi-use, 24-hour city, a very vibrant, a very active city, a very exciting city, and this trend of course is being arrested not by stopping development, but in fact we need more development, but we need it within the context of delivering a great multi-use city.

JANINE PERRETT: And Sartor's hard-sell of the Olympic city continued over breakfast with business leaders.

FRANK SARTOR: There's been an exodus out of Melbourne. All the better people from Melbourne have come to Sydney.

JANINE PERRETT: Over lunch with the media.

FRANK SARTOR: No, no, no. We're not upsetting you, Mr .... We'd like Woolworths to pay. We just want to negotiate the rent with you; that's all.

UNIDENTIFIED: All right. That's okay.

JANINE PERRETT: And cocktails with the city retailers.

FRANK SARTOR: A big difference, be great, be really good.

REG WITHERS: I live in the city. It's my village and we bank here. I mean, all our facilities are here. We shop here. Yes, I like living in the city.

JANINE PERRETT: Former Senator, Reg Withers, knows all about selling your city. In fact, he sold out his entire city council. Two years into his term as Lord Mayor of Perth, the toe-cutter convinced the WA Government that the only way to reform the council was to get rid of it.

REG WITHERS: Well, after all, who else in Australia has been sacked by a Prime Minister and a Premier. I've got the double.

JANINE PERRETT: But you obviously didn't mind it.

REG WITHERS: I was delighted, absolutely delighted. If you could have seen the looks on their face. There was a wonderful cartoon drawn, I think it was in the Bulletin, 1920, 1921, when Stanley Melbourne Bruce defeated Billy Hughes for Prime Minister. They had Billy Hughes being dragged away from this lolly shop, and it said: BILLY HUGHES BEING DRAGGED SCREAMING FROM THE TART SHOP. And that's how they all looked. I thought it was lovely.

JANINE PERRETT: So there was a lot of eating going on?

REG WITHERS: Yes, they were bits of gutsers some of them, yes. They really used to whack into it, you know. They'll have a three, four, five course meal. I wanted to change it to a simple lunch, but oh that wasn't going to be on. They went in there for a good tuck-in, and boy did they get through some grog.

UNIDENTIFIED: Congratulations Reg, I think you've done a terrific job with that council. I really appreciate it.

REG WITHERS: What, getting rid of them?

UNIDENTIFIED: Getting rid of them all.

REG WITHERS: Good.

UNIDENTIFIED: It's been the best job.

JANINE PERRETT: Wither's replacement while the Perth City Council is being reduced, is Commissioner Craig Lawrence. He sees the city from a different perspective.

CRAIG LAWRENCE: As I'd never been in a council office ever before I came to this commission, now it's not easy for us. Where we used to have 27 councillors and a Lord Mayor - that's 28 physical people who ratepayers could come and speak to, we found that that's not possible for five people to do that. So, we've created the infrastructure here so that ratepayers who have a problem, first go through the Town Clerk, and if they're not happy with that, their answer, then they will come to the Commission.

JANINE PERRETT: Melbourne also sacked its council and Commissioner KevAn Gosper is also making the adjustment from private enterprise to public sector.

KEVAN GOSPER: The challenge is greater. What has surprised me is how many interfaces there are that impact upon the council and how many groups you have to serve, and how much listening you have to do.

JANINE PERRETT: Your critics argue that you're too dispassionate, you're treating this too business-like, holding the council meetings, for example, during the day at 11 o'clock in the morning.

KEVAN GOSPER: Yes, there's been some criticism about that timing and my compromise has been to be put additional meetings in at the end of the day.

JANINE PERRETT: Gosper and Lawrence are the new corporate breed of local government managers whose talk is of resource sharing and mission statements. But in Victoria, the State with the greatest number and most expensive councils, the buzz word is 'amalgamation'.

Last month, this town hall was draped in black - a symbol of mourning for the demise of St Kilda Council. It's all part of Jeff Kennett's sweeping reform to local government, which will see Victoria's 210 councils eventually halved to 100. This big is better corporate philosophy has outraged many residents, not to mention the councillors and the Mayors, who are about to lose their jobs.

TIM COSTELLO: People want community. They hunger for community. This prospect of now a big amorphous entity which is run by firstly commissioners and then by councillors who will be dominated by the parties, doesn't excite them at all.

JANINE PERRETT: St Kilda Mayor, Tim Costello, is the lone voice trying to turn back the tide of amalgamation.

TIM COSTELLO: Foreshore is public space. St Kilda has been public space for so many minority groups, for gay, for artists, for many Jews who escaped Nazi Germany, and there's many of those sorts of groups in St Kilda and St Kilda belongs to them too. It's not just a playground for the rich, and council has been very vigilant about maintaining that.

JANINE PERRETT: So what will happen to all the trappings of the Mayor - the chains, the robes?

TIM COSTELLO: The mayoral chains, they may be, you know, melted down to stave off Victoria's debt. All sorts of things might happen to them. But clearly the mood of this government and Leonie Burke's board is that we'll be the last mayor .. I'll be the last mayor and this will be the last council.

JANINE PERRETT: Leonie Burke is Tim Costello's nemesis. She chairs the local government board charged with cutting a swathe through Victoria's councils. A former mayor herself, these days her rhetoric is more corporate than civic.

LEONIE BURKE: I think that the economic environment that we are now in is different, and I think that the expectations of people and government has changed quite considerably.

JANINE PERRETT: So, they can't stay as they are anyway?

LEONIE BURKE: Look, the economies of scale are quite clear in the areas of St Kilda where we're talking about savings that they themselves have said are around $11 million. We couldn't possibly allow the opportunities to be lost for those communities.

REG WITHERS: This economy of scale is a bit of a nonsense, you know. I've yet to believe the Commonwealth Government runs better because it's bigger than a State government. The most efficient local authority in Australia is the Shire of Peppermint Grove between Perth and Fremantle. I think it's a square mile and it has something like nine councillors; it has no debts; it is the best-kept suburb in Perth; one of the lowest rates in Australia; and I think it employs a shire clerk and a secretary.

JANINE PERRETT: The local government debate makes for strange political bedfellows. Brian Howe, as Minister for Housing and Regional Development, is an avid proponent of Melbourne's council amalgamations.

BRIAN HOWE: I believe that generally speaking local government that is stronger will be able to stand up for the interests that are important, say, for the Bayside area of Melbourne.

JANINE PERRETT: Do you wholeheartedly support Jeff Kennett's reforms to local government?

BRIAN HOWE: Well, I think the shrinking of the Melbourne City Council is frankly stupid and it allows the inner area to be effectively dominated, the CBD, to be dominated by the State Government, and I'm very strongly opposed to that, so I would have supported larger local government in the inner suburbs of Melbourne, not the shrinking of the CBD to suit essentially, I think, the State Government's ambitions.

JANINE PERRETT: Indeed, one area where there is universal agreement is on the need to improve the performance of councils. Brian Howe is talking tough with a review of the Government's funding.

BRIAN HOWE: We're looking at that at the moment in a review of the financial assistance grants, and we think we could perhaps have more incentive in that payment, there could be more linking of the payment to performance.

JANINE PERRETT: Are you saying Federal Government might get tougher on local councils by waving the funding sticker?

BRIAN HOWE: Well, I think that local government has to understand that micro-economic reform is as relevant at the local scale as it is at the level of State government or the Commonwealth Government. And so local government not only has to be efficient, it has to be seen to be efficient.

JANINE PERRETT: Counting is still continuing in last weekend's local elections in Western Australia. Because voting is voluntary, the turnout will be lucky to reach the last average of only 14 per cent. In urban areas a dismal 11 per cent of eligible voters actually bothered. That's why the State Government is considering the Tasmanian system of mailing in your vote, which lifted returns to over 50 per cent.

Excuse me, do you know where there are local elections on this weekend?

UNIDENTIFIED: Yes.

JANINE PERRETT: Will you be voting in them?

UNIDENTIFIED: No.

JANINE PERRETT: Why not?

UNIDENTIFIED: Because I have no idea of what they're about.

JANINE PERRETT: Did you know there's local council elections on this weekend?

UNIDENTIFIED: No.

JANINE PERRETT: Will you be voting in them?

UNIDENTIFIED: Yes. I don't know. Will we?

JANINE PERRETT: With public apathy so high, it's relatively easy in many areas to make it onto the local council. In WA a staggering 60 per cent of council positions were uncontested, raising more questions about the standard of councillors.

CRAIG LAWRENCE: It's quite easy to actually get onto a local council. You don't need that many votes. So, you tend to have people who are coming into local government who can get a support for a particular interest, a sort of a secular interest, if you like.

LEONIE BURKE: I think the big issue for the community is that they have to think when they go to vote at those local elections, who they're putting in and why they're putting them there.

UNIDENTIFIED: That lady there .. that lady must be an objector there, next door, 51.

JANINE PERRETT: Most of those interviewed by Sunday believe paying councillors more would help lift standards. This week the New South Wales Local Government Tribunal recommended a $2,000 increase to $5,000 for councillors, but few think that will be enough. In fact, some argue these people should also be given more power.

KEVAN GOSPER: You've got to give people real responsibility to attract good people.

BRIAN HOWE: We need to get our people in local government of real substance. We need to make local government an attractive sphere of government to people to be involved, and local government I think itself has to become more ambitious about what it should be involved with.

JANINE PERRETT: Howe and others feel councils can be a springboard for higher political office, while others blame the emergence of party politics as the downfall of local government.

JOHN GORRIE: You didn't want to pick up on one of your Liberal Party colleagues, but you pick on one of my Labor Party colleagues. Thanks very much.

REG WITHERS: I don't care whether they're all Labor, all Liberal, all anything, all men, all women, all Chinese, all Scots - I don't care, as long as they've got that proper quality.

JOHN GORRIE: There are probably a lot of us that aren't up to it, but somehow or other we get through.

UNIDENTIFIED: Mr Mayor, I draw your attention. It may be that we might be on national television....

BARBARA COORIE: This is....

JOHN GORRIE: Order!

UNIDENTIFIED: ....but I sincerely hope that national television understands these decorum and there are a set of rules.

BARBARA COORIE: .... means to gag me on a $50 million development. This is a public .. this wouldn't even happen in Parliament. This council is a pathetic joke.

UNIDENTIFIED: That's right. I tell you what, it's a bloody good circus tonight.

BARBARA COORIE: It is a good circus. It is an absolute circus.

JIM WALEY: Janine Perrett with that report.