Where is the real power at Town Hall?

By Stephen Mayne

There is a great misconception out there that councillors hold the power at City of Melbourne. Alas, truth be told, it is the officers who are really in control.

Part-time councillors come and go but the highly paid full-time officers endure and, in the end, they usually win.

Under the Local Government Act, the only employee who councillors can hire is the CEO.

But once hired, the CEO is very much in charge of the organisation, controlling the meeting agendas, flow of information, deployment of staff and allocation of resources.

The capital works budget is arguably the best example of officer control. There is a Capital Works Committee chaired by Professor Rob Adams but it only comprises officers. As councillor chair of the finance and governance committee from 2012 until 2016, I was never invited to this committee and never saw any agendas or minutes leading up to the budget.

In 2016, the draft budget was only released to councillors a day before the media lock-up and the granularity on individual capital works projects remained sparse because officers had successfully resisted my push for disclosure of individual capital works projects over a 10-year period.

The enterprise agreement is another prime example of officer power. Negotiations on a new agreement are continuing but this four-year contract is literally the largest commitment of rate-payer money that City of Melbourne enters into, amounting to more than $500 million over a four-year council term.

Councillors may get to vote on dozens of tiddler contracts worth a few hundred thousand dollars (which, like the hundreds of grants dished out, are rarely changed from the officer recommendation), but we have no involvement in the enterprise agreement. It has been a succession of CEOs, not the councillors, who have made City of Melbourne employees the best paid local government workers in Australia. The 2015-16 annual report reveals City of Melbourne had a staggering 169 staff earning more than $139,000.

All this largesse on the staff has squeezed council’s capacity to deliver more capital works projects, such as fixing up Harbour Esplanade.

Achieving change is never easy as an individual councillor and often encounters resistance from the officers. Take reform of council’s audit committee and internal audit function – a closed book if ever there was one.

Having arm-wrestled through a commitment at the start of the last four-year term for City of Melbourne to aspire to become Australia’s most open and transparent council, it wasn’t until year four that we finally turned our attention to the audit committee process.

However, when asked if there was a single change they would recommend for increased public visibility of the audit function, the officers couldn’t think of any, even though Tony Abbott’s local council at Warringah was publicly releasing internal audit reports.

In the end, as often happened, the only way to ensure something got done was by way of councillor motion.

Councillors duly requested the audit committee to suggest changes and it came back with a raft of amendments which elevated the status of the audit committee, increased the ability of independent members to communicate directly with councillors and provided some public visibility on their excellent work.

The officers lost some control, but the sky hasn’t fallen in.

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