Former Stirling councillor critical of restrictions on councillors’ ability to speak to media

Former Stirling councillor critical of restrictions on councillors’ ability to speak to media

A FORMER City of Stirling councillor has criticised a Local Government Act provision, which he says prevents councillors speaking to the media about local issues.

Bill Stewart, who was on council for 19 years, said the current provision in the Local Government Act was “draconian” and should be amended or removed.

“It should be a requirement within a democratic society that councillors speak to the media,” he said.

“You can’t have the principals of democracy with a regulation that restricts and penalises elected members speaking about issues that affect peoples lives; it is draconian.

“We are an open and tolerant society and the Local Government Act needs to reflect that; elected people need to be able to speak up in a constructive way.

“I’m not saying that they should start making uncouth comments or swearing but there is room for people to speak specifically on local issues.

“(The provision is) used as a technique to silence and intimidate councillors from speaking (and) the end result is it is counterproductive because councillors are not a political party; they are a mixture of people.”

The section in the Local Government Act states only the City mayor or Shire president may speak on behalf of councils.

Stirling chief executive Stuart Jardine said elected members must not make statements that are critical of a council decision or employee.

“Elected members have a legal duty of fidelity to act in the best interests of the council and the City,” he said.

“The penalty for breaching this may constitute a breach of the Local Government Regulations and therefore (be) reportable to the Department of Local Government.”

Mr Stewart said while councillors were allowed to express personal views to the media, it was difficult to navigate the “minefield” discouraging them to speak.

“A lot of effort is put in to quarantining councillors in the media, which is quite restrictive and doesn’t allow an open level of communication,” he said.

“I was chastised about attending a community forum and speaking on a particular issue.”

Mr Jardine said councillors who wanted to speak to the media needed approval from the mayor.

“An elected member who wishes to make, or has been approached by the media to make, a personal statement relating to a council decision or a local ward issue, must receive prior authorisation from the mayor,” he said.

Mr Stewart said the media ended up with “very skewed” insight.

“If (councillors) have a suspicion they can’t go anywhere with it because no one can talk,” he said.

“At the end of the day the role of the media is for a healthy democracy but these sorts of provisions are anti-democratic.”

State Opposition says preventing councillors speaking to media “fails transparency test”

Opposition local Government spokesman David Templeman said councils who used the provision in the act to prevent councillors from speaking to the media “fails the transparency test”.

“Elected members should always be available to talk to members of the public, and that includes media, when discussing matters of the local community,” he said.

“It is the basics of good governance and accountability.

“I would support all councils making sure their elected members are available to talk to the media on issues that relate to the ratepayers they represent.”

Local Government Minister Tony Simpson said the Act was framed in a way that meant there was one regular spokesperson for a local government.

“This is to ensure the information given is consistent and reflects the council’s decisions,” he said.

“While I am of the view that this practice is conducive to good governance, it is not improper for a council member to communicate with the public provided they make clear the opinion is their own.”

WA Local Government Association president Lynne Craigie said it was the job of the mayor or president to comment of behalf of the council.

“While individual elected members can’t be prevented from engaging in freedom of speech, they are unable to represent a decision of council as that remains the role of the mayor or president,” she said.

“In addition, under the Local Government Act an Elected Member is prevented from casting an adverse reflection on the council and its employees.

“We support councils in their endeavours to facilitate effective communication with their constituents whilst being mindful of their legislative requirements.”