The role of a council member

Generally, local government council members, who include the mayor or president and councillors, do not have any authority to act or make decisions as individuals. They are members of an elected body that makes decisions on behalf of a local government through a formal meeting process.


The role of a council member

Providing leadership and guidance to the community

People look to their elected representatives for leadership and guidance. Councillors can provide this by putting forward options and presenting arguments or possible solutions to problems at council meetings.

Developing a vision for the community and deciding what needs to be done to achieve that vision is an important role for council members. Convincing the community to endorse and follow that vision (and associated plans) requires leadership.

The most fundamental task for councillors is to achieve a strong sense of shared purpose and commitment. The needs and desires of the community are constantly changing and evolving. Councillors must be prepared to initiate new policies and activities in response to these changes.

Facilitating communication between the community and the council

To be effective, council members need to understand the views of the people they represent. Communication needs to flow both ways to be effective. Councillors provide information to the community about the policies and decisions of council, and the community relays its desires, concerns, and opinions to the council through the councillors. To represent both electors and the council effectively, a councillor needs to be a good communicator and keep in touch with the local community.

Councillors can keep in touch with electors in a variety of ways, such as:

  • attending meetings of local organisations;
  • being available and responding to residents who wish to raise issues or concerns;
  • attending events arranged by the local government;
  • participating in functions held in the local area;
  • communicating with the community regarding council matters via a newsletter, email or website; and
  • reading the local newspaper.

Determining policy

The policy-making role of a councillor includes:

  • assessing and evaluating community needs;
  • establishing priorities for the identified needs;
  • considering the allocation of local government resources; and
  • convincing fellow councillors of these needs and obtaining their support.

To initiate new policies and activities successfully, a councillor will often need to gather information and obtain advice. This may be achieved through the council staff, following an approach to the CEO.

While a policy may begin with an individual idea, decisions are not made by an individual councillor alone. They are made by the whole council. This democratic process means that a councillor must accept the majority decision when the council votes upon a motion. If a council member feels strongly about an issue and does not have a conflict of interest in the matter, he or she should present a well-constructed and researched argument during the debate on the motion. If the result of the vote is against the wishes of an individual councillor, he or she should accept that result graciously. Each council member has the right to have their dissent recorded in the minutes.

Planning for the future

All local governments must plan for the future of its district. This process starts with a Strategic Community Plan and a Corporate Business Plan.

The Strategic Community Plan is a 10-year plan that states the aspirations, vision, and objectives of the community, is developed with input from the community, and is adopted by council.

The local government’s administration then develops a four-year Corporate Business Plan that prioritises all the projects, services and activities needed to implement the Strategic Community Plan. It should state how much each will cost, what assets will be involved, and who will implement them.

The Corporate Business Plan should be developed using informing strategies, particularly asset management, long term financial planning, and workforce planning. These inform how capable the local government is of delivering the services requested by the community. Informing strategies about specific issues, such as community safety or major infrastructure works, also assist the local government to deliver these services.

Council does not need to approve the operational plan or business unit plans referenced in the Corporate Business Plan, but it should consider the community’s long-term objectives and the local government’s capacity to deliver when deciding its priorities.

Council reviews the Strategic Community Plan every two years through a desktop review, to make sure it is meeting the changing needs of the community. Council is required to conduct a major review of the plan every four years. Council will also review the Corporate Business Plan annually, to respond to changes inside and outside the local government. This process also helps council in setting the annual budget.

More information is available in the DLGSC’s Integrated Planning and Reporting Framework and Guidelines.

Managing assets

Local government assets include everything from roads, bridges, buildings and parks, to computers and telephones, software, and intellectual property (IP).

Although assets are managed by the local government’s administration, council has responsibility for making sure that the community gets the best possible value from its assets. It does this by setting affordable and achievable priorities in the Corporate Business Plan and by making sure that the local government’s Asset Management Strategy is developed and implemented, with appropriate resources for that process.

More information is available in the DLGSC’s Asset Management Framework and Guidelines.

Governing finances

The local government’s Corporate Business Plan and Long Term Financial Plan set out the projects, services, and activities that the local government will deliver and how much these will cost. This information is used by council in the setting and adoption of the annual budget.

Throughout the year, reports are prepared to enable councillors to review council finances, ensure that the council is adhering to its budget or make appropriate modifications. As with all local government business, finance is a matter for discussion and resolution by the full council. Councillors should maintain an active interest in budgeting since the council is responsible to the community for the results achieved.

More information is available in the DLGSC’s Long Term Financial Planning Framework and Guidelines.

Reviewing policy

Another aspect of the councillor’s role is to review policy. This involves assessing whether a policy is fulfilling the community’s needs at any given time and examining the costs associated with the policy’s implementation.

To review activities effectively, councillors need to obtain relevant information from both community members and local government staff through appropriate channels.

Being informed

Attending meetings

Council members have a duty to attend all council meetings to ensure that electors are adequately represented. Under the Local Government Act 1995 (the Act), a councillor who is absent from three consecutive ordinary council meetings without leave being granted by the council is automatically disqualified. If a member needs to be absent for more than six consecutive ordinary meetings, Ministerial approval is necessary as well as council approval.

Applications for leave of absence must be approved by council before (or at the start of) the meeting(s) the council member is to be absent from. Leave of absence cannot be approved retrospectively.

Many local governments operate using a system of committees to reduce the work at council meetings. These committees are established to consider specific aspects of a local government’s operation, such as finance, works, community services or planning. Committees then make recommendations to the full council. Each committee usually includes a small number of councillors. Some committees include non-elected members such as employees, consultants or community members.

The number of meetings a councillor must attend each month will vary according to the frequency of council meetings and the number of committees on which the elected member sits. Most local governments have monthly or fortnightly council meetings. Committee meetings may be held several days prior to the council meeting or on the same day.

Some local governments have other types of meetings outside of the formal council meeting framework which allows councillors and officers to meet and discuss matters.

Voting at meetings

If a council member is present at a council meeting, he or she has a duty to vote on all matters before that meeting, unless he or she has a financial interest in the matter. The lodging of proxy votes is not permitted at meetings of council or its committees.

It is important for councillors to read the agenda items and officers’ reports before the council meeting. Without this background reading, it is extremely difficult for councillors to effectively assess issues and provide constructive input to council debate and decision making. Further information should be requested if there is insufficient material available to make an informed decision. Background reports and papers can often be lengthy. Consequently, councillors must set aside adequate time for preparation prior to each council meeting.

Being aware of local issues

Because councillors are required by law to vote on all issues that require a decision at a council meeting, ward councillors (if the district has wards) should obtain information on, and remain informed about, issues occurring outside their ward but within other areas of the local government district.

Councillors should also endeavour to remain informed about current affairs at a state and national level. This will give an elected member a broader perspective on issues affecting council.

Following up problems

It is important that a councillor ensures that all electors’ enquiries and complaints receive appropriate responses, either by telephone, email, or letter. Electors are then reassured that their local government takes notice of them.

Gaining and maintaining support

Maintaining contact with electors, attending meetings of council, performing other civic duties, and remaining informed about all relevant local issues is time consuming. This is particularly so for newly elected councillors who are unlikely to have background knowledge of many of the issues being considered.

Newly elected councillors need to examine their present commitments and establish priorities to manage their time effectively. It is important for to have the support of family and/or friends. This support should be gained before standing for election. Additionally, you will often need assistants, especially for running an election campaign.

Accountability to the community

Local government councillors are accountable to the council and to the electors of the local government district.

Public access to information

Members of the public can attend all local government ordinary council meetings and certain committee meetings. They also have the right to access certain local government records and information, including:

  • the register of financial interests;
  • minutes of council and committee meetings;
  • agenda, notice papers, reports, and other documents that will be tabled at a meeting;
  • maps showing the district and ward boundaries; and
  • local laws.

Members of the public do not have a right to inspect agenda, minutes or notice papers for closed meetings or parts of meetings. Meetings can only be closed in a limited number of circumstances as prescribed by legislation.

Disclosure of financial interests

Councillors must disclose certain financial interests at council and committee meetings and in primary and annual returns. Councillors need to inform themselves about these matters because failure to disclose interests where required can incur fines of up to $10,000 or imprisonment of up to two years.

Disclosures at meetings and in primary and annual returns are recorded in a register to which the public has access. This enhances the accountability of councillors to the public. At the same time, protection is given to councillors because it is an offence for a person to publish information from the register unless under specified circumstances.

Note: A councillor’s right to privacy is balanced by the public’s right to be aware of the benefits a council member could gain from a decision.

It is pointless to seek election to local government to address a single issue in which you have a financial interest, because you would be unable to vote on that issue. In this case, it would be better for you to join a community group and lobby council regarding the issue.

The department has prepared guidelines on financial interest disclosures in both meetings and annual returns.

Disclosure of interests affecting impartiality

In addition to financial interests, councillors must declare interests that the community may perceive would affect their ability to act with impartiality. An interest which commonly falls within this definition occurs when a councillor is a member of a group, club or association that brings a matter before the council for a decision. Additionally, if a councillor’s parents, siblings or children (not living at home) have an item before council, the councillor is required to disclose an interest affecting impartiality.

The department has produced a guideline in relation to disclosure of interests affecting impartiality.

Freedom of information

Local governments are subject to the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act 1992, which gives the public a legally enforceable right to access any document held by a local government, unless it has been exempted for a limited number of reasons. For example, personal information can be exempted from release.

Both FOI legislation and the access provisions in the Act are aimed at encouraging public participation in government and maximising the accountability of local governments to their community.

Financial protection and liability

A councillor is not personally liable for the actions of a local government where that person has acted in good faith and is properly exercising his or her powers and functions under the Act. However, councillors are effectively the trustees of local government funds and property. Any unauthorised act may result in councillors being personally liable for any loss or damage.

If a councillor is convicted of misapplying money and ordered to repay it, the person may be disqualified from acting as a councillor for up to five years, even if the money has been voluntarily repaid.

Defamation

Council members are not protected from defamation in the same manner as Members of Parliaments for statements they make in the council chamber. Defamation is the aspect of law that protects people’s reputations. It may be divided into libel, which relates to written or pictorial material, and slander, which relates to oral comments. Defamation can be defined as anything that tends to lower a person in the estimation of members of society.

In a council meeting, the elected member fulfils a public duty and is therefore given limited protection from legal actions of defamation. Unlike a Member of Parliament, a councillor’s privilege is qualified. This means that protection is only provided if the statements are made in good faith. Statements made with malice or made recklessly are not protected.

Statements made outside council meetings are unlikely to attract qualified privilege. This is particularly pertinent in relation to social media. While it can be a powerful tool for communicating ideas and policy platforms directly with the community, care should be used. The Act and associated Regulations and the Defamation Act 2005 apply in the virtual world, just as they do in real life. The test is whether a councillor would feel comfortable saying something on social media that could still be said in a public forum like a council meeting or on the front page of a newspaper.

Declarations of office

A person elected as a councillor, mayor or president must make a declaration to observe the code of conduct of the local government before acting in the office. The declaration must be made within two months of election and will be organised by the local government’s CEO.

Governance and ethical standards

A local government councillor is expected to:

  • promote and support good governance;
  • promote and support open and transparent government;
  • support and adhere to respectful, appropriate, and effective relationships; and
  • adhere to the Code of Conduct.

Council members’ rights

Right to request that votes be recorded

In council or committee meetings, a member can request that either his or her vote, or the votes of all members present, be recorded in the minutes. If such a request is made, the vote(s) must be recorded.

Right to be on at least one committee

A council member is entitled to be on at least one committee. The council determines the committee(s) on which the councillor sits.

Right to request further information when making decisions

Council and committee members have the right to access information beyond what is provided to members of the public. This ensures members are properly informed on matters that are relevant to their functions. The functions of council members in this context include:

  • any function that a member is appointed or authorised to carry out by the council;
  • preparations for an upcoming meeting agenda item decision; or
  • anything the member is doing in carrying out his or her role.

The access provisions do not give members unlimited access to information held by the local government. Members may only seek access to information that is relevant to the performance of a specific function. Access arrangements should be made through the CEO.

Note: Council members, committee members or employees who make improper use of information acquired in the performance of their functions to:

  • gain an advantage for themselves or any other person either directly or indirectly; or
  • cause detriment to the local government or any other person

may be liable for a penalty of up to $10,000 or two years imprisonment. The Act does not define the term ‘improper use’, but it is likely to include wilfully taking advantage of confidential or restricted information held by a local government.

Meeting attendance fees

Each council member has a right to be paid meeting attendance fees. The fee for attending a meeting is not a salary. It is a recognition of the time and effort involved in preparing for and attending council and committee meetings. Meeting attendance fees are taxable. Budgets and annual financial reports are required to disclose the fees, expenses, and allowances paid to council members.

Council decides the amount of the fee within the minimum and maximum amounts determined by the Salaries and Allowances Tribunal (SAT) under the Salaries and Allowances Act 1975. Fees for individual meetings apply unless council decides to pay an annual fee. If the council does not set the amount of the individual meeting fee payable, members are entitled to claim the minimum amount.

Council members cannot claim fees for attending committee meetings unless they are formally appointed members of that committee.

Right to reimbursement of expenses

Expenses that must be reimbursed

Each council member is entitled to be reimbursed for information and communications technology expenses, childcare expenses, and travel costs.

The extent to which these expenses are reimbursed is established by the SAT. Where the SAT determines that annual allowances may be paid toward these expenses, councils can decide to pay their members those allowances at the amount or within the range set by the SAT.

While there is capacity for councils to reimburse their members for expenses incurred beyond these allowances, the SAT does impose limits on the level of some of these reimbursements.

Expenses that may be reimbursed

Expenses incurred in performing a function under the express authority of the local government and expenses incurred by a person who accompanies a council member while performing a function of the local government may be reimbursed. A local government may also decide upon further types of expenses to be reimbursed. Sufficient information, such as a receipt, must be provided to verify reimbursement.  

Additional allowance for mayors and presidents

Mayors and presidents are entitled to an annual allowance in addition to their meeting attendance fee. This allowance can be used for any local government related purpose. The right to claim this allowance cannot be refused by the council. Council may decide the amount to be paid, provided it is within the minimum and maximum limits set by the SAT.

Tax deductions are available for the cost of providing entertainment for the public at large in relation to official duties.

Additional allowance for deputy mayors and deputy presidents

Councils also have the discretion to provide an annual allowance for the deputy mayor or deputy president up to a percentage of the annual allowance to which the mayor or president is entitled, as determined by the SAT.

Note: The SAT reviews the appropriate amounts for meeting fees, allowances, and reimbursements on an annual basis. For up to date information, visit the Local Government Elected Members section of the SAT website.

Required skills, abilities, and knowledge

Local government councillors should develop the following skills, abilities, and knowledge:

  • Understanding of the role and structure of local government as prescribed by the Act and associated Regulations.
  • Understanding of the town planning role of local government as prescribed by the Planning and Development Act 2005.
  • Understanding of Integrated Planning and Reporting, including strategic plans for the future of the local government, the processes involved, and the strategic role of a councillor.
  • Understanding of CEO performance management processes.
  • Ability to read and understand financial statements and reports.
  • Basic understanding of legal processes.
  • Understanding of the separation of powers between council and administration (the difference between governing and managing).
  • Understanding of meeting processes, including Standing Orders (the local law containing rules used to manage a meeting).
  • Awareness of risk management strategies.
  • Understanding of the accountability framework prescribed by the Act, the Corruption, Crime and Misconduct Act 2003, and other legislation.
  • Ability to communicate, debate, and actively participate in meetings.
  • Ability to develop and maintain effective working relationships and to manage interpersonal conflicts.
  • Ability to exercise independent judgement.

All candidates must complete online induction prior to nominating for election, and every council member is expected to undertake further training within 12 months of their next election. 

Managing assets

All local government services and projects are delivered with assets. Local government assets include everything from roads, bridges, buildings and parks, to computers and telephones, software and intellectual property (IP).

Although assets are managed by the local government’s administration, council has responsibility for making sure that the community gets the best possible value from its assets. It does this by setting affordable and achievable priorities in the Corporate Business Plan, and by making sure that the local government’s Asset Management Strategy is developed and implemented, with appropriate resources for that process.

More information is available in the DLGSC’s Asset Management Framework and Guidelines publication.

Governing finances

The local government’s Corporate Business Plan and Long Term Financial Plan will set out the projects, services and activities that the local government will deliver and how much these will cost. This information is used by council in the setting and adoption of the annual budget.

Throughout the year, reports are prepared to enable councillors to review council finances, ensure that the council is adhering to its budgets or make appropriate modifications. As with all local government business, finance is a matter for discussion and resolution by the full council. Nevertheless, the individual councillor should maintain an active interest in budgeting since the council is responsible to the community for the results achieved. A councillor may also be called upon to explain the results to the community.

More information is available in the DLGSC’s Long Term Financial Planning Framework and Guidelines publication.

Reviewing policy

Another aspect of the councillor’s role is to review policy occasionally. This involves assessing whether a policy is fulfilling the community’s needs at any given time and examining the costs associated with the policy’s implementation.

To review activities effectively, councillors need to obtain relevant information from both community members and local government staff through appropriate channels.

Important to note: People who are prompted to stand because of one local issue need to appreciate that a) they will be responsible for a much wider range of issues if elected, and b) may not be able to be involved in decisions on that issue if they have a conflict of interest.

Attending meetings

Council members have a duty to attend all council meetings to ensure that electors are adequately represented. In recognition of this, under the Local Government Act 1995 a councillor who is absent from three consecutive ordinary council meetings without leave being granted by the council, is automatically disqualified. If a member wishes to be absent for more than six consecutive ordinary meetings, Ministerial approval is necessary as well as council approval.

It should be noted that applications for leave of absence are usually supported but must be approved by council before (or at) the meeting(s) the council member is to be absent from.  Leave of absence cannot be approved retrospectively.

Many local governments operate using a system of committees to reduce the work at council meetings. These committees are established to consider specific aspects of a local government’s operation such as finance, works, community services or planning. Each committee usually includes a small number of councillors who generally make recommendations to full council. Many councils also operate using committees which include non-elected members such as employees, consultants or community members.

The number of meetings a councillor must attend each month will vary according to the frequency of council meetings and the number of committees on which the elected member sits.  (Most local governments have monthly or fortnightly council meetings and committee meetings may be held several days prior to the full council meeting or on the same day.)

Some local governments have other types of meetings outside the formal council meeting framework which allow councillors and officers to meet and discuss matters.

Being informed

Voting at meetings

If a council member is present at a council meeting, he or she has a duty to vote on all matters before that meeting unless he or she has a financial interest in the matter. Therefore, it is important for councillors to read the agenda items and officers’ reports before the council meeting.

Without this background reading, it is extremely difficult for councillors to make effective assessments of issues and provide constructive input to council debate and decision making. It is also recommended that further information be requested if there is insufficient material available to make an informed decision.

Background reports and papers can often be lengthy. Consequently, councillors must set aside adequate time for preparation prior to each council meeting. The lodging of proxy votes is not permitted at meetings of council or its committees.

Being aware of local issues

Because councillors are required by law to vote on all issues before the meeting, ward councillors should obtain information on, and remain informed about, issues occurring outside their ward but within other areas of the local government district.

Councillors should also endeavour to remain informed about current affairs at a state and national level. This will give an elected member a broader perspective on issues affecting council.

Following up problems

It is very important that a councillor ensures that all electors’ enquiries and complaints receive appropriate responses, either by telephone, email, or letter. Electors are then reassured that their local government takes notice of them.

Setting aside time and gaining the support needed

Maintaining contact with electors, attending meetings of council, performing other civic duties and remaining informed about all relevant local issues is time consuming. This is particularly so for newly elected councillors who are unlikely to have background knowledge of many of the issues being considered.

Newly elected councillors will need to examine their present commitments and establish priorities to manage their time effectively.

If it is important for you to have the support of your family or friends. This support should be gained before standing for election. Additionally, you will often need assistants, especially for running an election campaign.

Local government councillor – snapshot of the role

Context – the general function of local government

 Why local governments exist.

  • The Local Government Act 1995 (section 3.1) establishes that:
    • the general function of a local government is to provide for the good government of persons in its district;
    • the scope of what a local government can do is broadly what its community requires and can reasonably be provided with available resources and within the constraints of the Act or any other written law; and
    • a liberal approach is to be taken to the construction of the scope of the general function of a local government.
    • The notion of “good government” is illustrated by the provisions of section 1.3(2) which summarises the outcomes intended:
    • “This Act is intended to result in –
      1. better decision making by local governments;
      2. greater community participation in the decisions and affairs of local governments;
      3. greater accountability of local governments to their communities; and
      4. more efficient and effective local government.”
  • Section 1.3(3) establishes that “in carrying out its functions a local government is to use its best endeavours to meet the needs of current and future generations through an integration of environmental protection, social advancement and economic prosperity”.

1. Context – the general function of local government

 Why local governments exist.

  • The Local Government Act 1995 (section 3.1) establishes that:
    • the general function of a local government is to provide for the good government of persons in its district;
    • the scope of what a local government can do is broadly what its community requires and can reasonably be provided with available resources and within the constraints of the Act or any other written law; and
        • a liberal approach is to be taken to the construction of the scope of the general function of a local government.
        • The notion of “good government” is illustrated by the provisions of section 1.3(2) which summarises the outcomes intended:
        • “This Act is intended to result in –
          1. better decision making by local governments;
          2. greater community participation in the decisions and affairs of local governments;
          3. greater accountability of local governments to their communities; and
          4. more efficient and effective local government.”
      • Section 1.3(3) establishes that “in carrying out its functions a local government is to use its best endeavours to meet the needs of current and future generations through an integration of environmental protection, social advancement and economic prosperity”.

      2. Accountabilities, as prescribed by the Local Government Act 1995

      The accountabilities of the position of local government councillor are:

      • to the council, which:
        • governs the local government’s affairs;
        • is responsible for the performance of the local government’s functions; and
        • is to oversee the allocation of resources and determine the local government’s policies.
      • to the electors of the local government district.

      Skills, abilities and knowledge

      • An understanding of the role and structure of local government as prescribed by the Local Government Act 1995 and Regulations;
        • An understanding of the quasi-judicial town planning role of local government, as prescribed by the Planning and Development Act 2005;
      • An understanding of Integrated Planning and Reporting which comprise the strategic plans for the future of the local government, the processes involved and the strategic role of a councillor;
      • An understanding of the process of managing the CEO’s performance;
      • Ability to read and understand financial statements and reports; and
      • A basic understanding of legal processes.

      3. Governance and ethical standards

      A local government councillor is expected to:

      • promote and support good governance of the council and its affairs;
      • promote and support open and transparent government;
      • support, and adhere to respectful, appropriate and effective relationships with employees of the local government; and
      • adhere to the Local Government (Rules of Conduct) Regulations 2007 and the local government’s internal Code of Conduct.

      Skills, abilities and knowledge

      • An understanding of the ‘separation of powers’ between councillors and the administration (the difference between governing and managing);
      • An understanding of meeting process, including Standing Orders (the local law containing rules used to manage a meeting);
      • An understanding of policy development processes;
      • An awareness of risk management strategies; and
      • An understanding of the accountability framework prescribed by the
        Local Government Act 1995
        and the Corruption, Crime and Misconduct Act 2003, and other legislation.

      Values, characteristics and commitment to the role

      These are the values, characteristics and commitments that are expected of a councillor:

      • Openness and transparency with making decisions;
      • Honesty and integrity in dealing with issues being considered;
      • Tolerance and respect in relationships at all levels;
      • Equality and fairness in promoting community issues;
      • A commitment to attend meetings and be fully prepared to participate in the decision-making process;
      • A collegiate approach to serving the community;
      • A commitment to networking and community consultation;
      • Willingness to listen to and consider other peoples’ views and accept challenge from others;
      • Awareness and management of conflicts of interest; and
      • Preparedness to share the workload with other councillors.

      Skills, abilities and knowledge

      • The ability to communicate, debate and actively participate in meetings; ability to enhance discussion and assist discussions to reach closure; ability to disagree, without being disagreeable;
      • The ability to develop and maintain effective working relationships and to manage interpersonal conflicts; and
      • Ability to exercise independent judgement.

      Personal and role development

      Participate in opportunities for local government training and development provided for elected members.  All candidates must complete online induction prior to nominating for election, and every council member will be expected to undertake further training within 12 months of their next election after the training provisions come into effect.

      Page reviewed 08 July 2021