A new version of the model Code of Conduct and associated procedures were prescribed by the Office of Local Government at the end of last year. In essence, the Code sets the ethical standards expected of council officials. This includes close to 1,300 councillors and more than 45,000 staff who are employed by 128 councils across NSW. The most recent updates are intended to reflect new and emerging issues and shifting community standards and expectations.
Adopting the new Code of Conduct
Many local councils are in the process of updating their codes to reflect the new provisions. This needs to be done by 14 June 2019. If councils do not adopt the new Code by 14 June 2019, then it will automatically override the existing code.
Councils existing codes and procedures will remain in place until such time as the new ones have been adopted. The new provisions do not retrospectively apply.
Importantly, the Code sets the minimum ethical and behavioural standards of council officials. Councils can choose to strengthen these. Interestingly, the new Code does not include specific provisions about social media, which were contained in the consultation draft. So councils could choose to include explicit provisions about social media use.
Separate Codes for councillors, staff, delegates and committee members have been prepared by the Office of Local Government – these are available on its website. This is helpful to clarify exactly what obligations apply to whom. Councils can choose to adopt separate Codes, rather than one.
One stop shop for ethical obligations
Perhaps the most significant change in the Code is the consolidation of all ethical standards for local government into the one place.
Previously, the ethical standards were set out in three different places being:
- the Local Government Act 1993
- associated local government regulations
- the model Code of Conduct.
Now, all standards including obligations about disclosure and management of pecuniary conflicts of interest are in the Code. This makes it much easier for council officials to understand the full breadth of their ethical obligations.
Other key changes to the Code of Conduct
The Code has also been updated to reflect feedback that some of the prescribed standards have been too vague. So, the Code has been redrafted to be more prescriptive. It also more clearly defines inappropriate behaviour. For example, the general clause about treating others with respect has been replaced with more specific clauses. This is a welcomed change.
The new Code also now has:
New standards about discrimination and harassment, bullying and work health and safety, behaviours at meetings, access to information and maintenance of council records
- New rules about acceptance of gifts
- Clarity around the disclosure and management of non-pecuniary conflicts of interest
- A new ongoing disclosure requirement for councillors and designated persons
- A new requirement for councillors to disclose if they are a property developer or a close associate of one
Key changes to the Procedures
At the same time, there have been changes to the procedures. These govern how complaints are managed under the Code. This includes:
- Giving the General Manager the power to delegate functions under the Procedures to another staff member or person external to council
- Enabling councils to centralise the management of complaints through regional arrangements
- Enabling council’s internal ombudsman to be appointed to a panel of conduct reviewers subject to certain conditions
There has also been a tightening up of the definition of a “code of conduct complaint”. Routine complaints cannot now re-badged and dealt with under the Code.
The procedures also provide some recourse in the event that a complainant makes the complaint public.
Questions for Councils to consider when adopting the Code
When adopting the new Code of Conduct and associated procedures, councils have a number of policy questions to consider including:
1. Whether your council wishes to include stronger provisions in the Code?
2. Whether your council wishes to adopt separate Codes for councillors, staff and delegates?
3. Whether you council wishes to extend the Code to contractors, community members of wholly advisory committees and / or volunteers?
If you need assistance with review of your Code, contact Emma Broomfield who is a nominated Code of Conduct reviewer for numerous councils in northern NSW. Emma also offers bespoke training for councillors and Council staff on the changes in the Code.
Disclaimer: This publication is provided in good faith and is for general information purposes only. This publication does not constitute legal advice or other professonial advice, and must not be relied upon. You should seek legal or other professional advice in relation to matters arising out of the publication having regard to your circumstances and needs. No warranty or representation regarding the reliability, quality or accuracy of any information in this publication is given by Locale Consulting or the authors of the publication.