Councillors’ feathers have been ruffled over plans to restrict them from attending on-site meetings with aggrieved residents amid concerns of muddying potential law suits.
Under Penrith Council’s draft Compliance and Enforcement Policy 2019, Councillors must not attend on-site meetings with Council staff, where they are meeting with complainants or persons the subject of investigation or enforcement action.
Councillors unanimously voted against the clause during the March 11 Policy Review Committee Meeting, saying it was effectively a further “watering down” of the role they were elected for.
“It really revolves around Councillors being free to make representations on behalf of constituents, which is the normal thing to do,” Mayor Ross Fowler said.
“I can’s see any problem with Councillors talking with ratepayers and residents and business people where there is an issue, but when the issue evolves into legal action, it becomes a difficult matter and we shouldn’t be part of the process.”
Councillors can meet and assist individuals who raise concerns with them, but those meetings should be recorded and not involve Council staff, according to draft wording.
Councillor Bernard Bratusa was critical, saying he should be able to hear what a Council officer is directing a constituent to do and what the constituent is saying in their defence.
“Councillors are elected officials,” he said.
“If the constituent wants me to be present when they are discussing compliance issues with a Council officer, I can’t see the drama.
“I should be able to sit there, not intervene, listen. It takes away the ‘he said, she said’ debate, and as much protects the interests of Council at the meeting.”
General Manager Warwick Winn said it was not about shutting Councillors out of the process, but rather ensuring transparency and impartiality.
“To keep that clear separation, it’s just a cleaner way to do it,” he said.
Cr Fowler said Councillors were being hit hard by red tape.
“If you really want a comparison, the Council Code of Conduct document now runs to about 53 pages,” he said.
“The Code of Conduct for State parliamentarians is about 2.5 pages.”
A Council spokesperson said Council has a responsibility as an enforcement authority to ensure compliance and enforcement decisions and actions are applied consistently.
“The draft policy assists Councillors in managing the risks involved and to clarify how best they can represent and assist residents who may be involved in such investigations,” he said.
Council has confirmed the recruitment of four additional staff members to assist them in responding to compliance matters more efficiently.
Alena Higgins is the Weekender’s Senior News Reporter, primarily covering courts and Council issues.