Under proposed reforms to the Local Government Act, the State Government is currently seeking to increase the power of mayors by allowing them to exclude poorly behaving councillors from meetings.
The reforms also propose mayors be given a deliberative vote and their two-year term limit be abolished.
It follows the release of statistics from the SA Ombudsman showing almost half of local government code of conduct complaints are prompted by councillor disputes.
At an Adelaide City Council committee meeting last night, councillors debated the proposed reforms, with area councillor Robert Simms labelling the flagged changes to the role of mayors as “concerning”.
He suggested councils could instead recruit retired judges or politicians to chair meetings, which he said would address the “conflict” that arises when elected mayors are required to act as independent umpires.
“I think there is a conflict between the role of the Lord Mayor, which is in effect a political role, and then the role that’s been promoted by the Government, which is more like an umpire or sort of independent speaker kind of role,” Simms said.
“We probably need to move to a situation where we have the Lord Mayor being a standalone member of council that can put forward motions and advocate in the chamber.
“(We should) then have an independent chair who is a retired politician or former judge or someone like that who is totally independent of the political process and who then has powers to manage the meeting appropriately.”
The idea won support from area councillor Anne Moran and north ward councillor Phil Martin, who claimed increasing the powers of mayors could be “dangerous” for councils split along factional lines.
This council term has seen the emergence of the ‘Team Adelaide’ majority faction at Town Hall – a group of councillors that Lord Mayor Sandy Verschoor publicly endorsed before last year’s council election.
Verschoor has since distanced herself from the faction, repeatedly claiming that she is unaligned with the faction and is an independent elected member.
“The Lord Mayor generally represents the dominant faction – not always, but usually – and I have seen in the past the political powers have been used to bully and intimidate,” Moran said.
“The mayor is not an independent person sitting outside the council, the mayor is… part of the political landscape of the council and extra powers are dangerous.”
Martin added that there was “a real danger that people will be singled out (by mayors) for particular treatment” under the proposed reforms and that “rules for conduct will change in a way that doesn’t benefit voters”.
“I think if there is to be any system that admonishes elected members who are voted independently by different voter groups then it ought to be something that is not only independent and impartial, but seen to be independent and impartial,’ he said.
But south ward councillor Alexander Hyde – who is aligned with Team Adelaide – criticised the idea of hiring an independent chair as “just a ‘jobs for the boys’ thing”.
He later clarified that the “boys” he was referring to related to “retired judges and ex-politicians and whatnot”.
Simms questioned what Hyde meant by his comment, to which Hyde replied it was a “turn of phrase”.
“I don’t have an issue with them (mayors) regulating our behaviour in the chamber, in fact, I think by virtue of how we operate, the Lord Mayor is probably more of an independent arbitrator, I suppose, when it comes to the chamber when compared to how State Parliament works,” Hyde said.
“If they (State Parliament speakers) have the ability to throw members out for misbehaving I think our chairperson should have the ability to do the same thing.
“I think it’s a no-brainer and I think it’s desperately needed.”
Fellow Team Adelaide member Franz Knoll said it was “always going to be a vexed conversation” around how the chair could control meetings.
“We have a good introduction with how we should be behaving and that should be a good guide,” he said.
Lord Mayor Sandy Verschoor said she supported a State Government proposal to establish an independent commissioner to deal with code of conduct complaints.
According to the State Government, the proposed commissioner would have the ability to suspend a member or their allowance, or require reimbursement to the council of costs involved in an investigation of a code of conduct breach.
The council will use feedback provided by councillors to inform its submission to the State Government.
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