I sat down for a coffee with an acquaintance recently. Inevitably, the conversation came around to my role as Mayor and an offhand comment was made: “It is a pity you aren’t a property developer because being the Mayor you could make some zoning changes and make a few easy dollars”. I was astounded. This was an intelligent person whom I assumed had reasonable life experience. Yet to have such little understanding of the role of a Councillor and general processes of probity and transparency simply stunned me. The conversation started me thinking of the power that perception plays in our community.
A very old business saying is that perception is reality. I believe that to be almost true. Perception is reality but not always the truth. That may sound contradictory because surely reality and the truth are the same. The crucial question is: the truth according to whom? The French-Cuban author, Anaïs Nin, said that “We don’t see things as they are; we see things as we are.” People will always modify their memory of any event with their own particular bias - without even realising it. They will have their entire life history and their values and beliefs simmering away in the background as they absorb and see an event. Two people can hear the same conversation yet when they describe it to someone else it can sound completely different. Reality is nothing more than your perception of what is happening around you.
One constant battle for Councils across NSW is the image of fat, bald, elderly men smoking cigars sitting in a backroom making decisions to line their own pockets. Local government has come a long way past this image – if in fact this image was ever accurate at all. In 1842, the first local elections took place for 28 District Councils across NSW and in 1858 the Municipalities Act was passed. This set the framework for local government through until the Local Government (Shires) Act was passed in 1905, which was quickly followed by the Local Government Act in 1906. The most significant change occurred though in the Local Government Act 1919. This act removed the requirement to have the Governor approve many of the measures passed by Councils and set the stage for the administration of local government in NSW for the next 74 years.
It is during this time that many of the perceptions of an Alderman (as Councillors were then called) were created and, unfortunately, some perceptions can take several generations to change. The stories of an alderman living on a dirt road and ringing a staff member to lay some bitumen for the 100 metres in front of his house may well have occurred on the odd occasion when aldermen could contact staff directly. A staff member would probably have seen an alderman as an authority figure – or possibly as their boss – and simply carried out their instructions. One of the many issues of the 1919 version of the Act was the confusion created for staff members who didn’t know who their boss was – one of a dozen or more aldermen or the Town Clerk.
The Local Government Act 1993 received assent on 8 June 1993 and it did much more than introduce the titles of Councillor and General Manager. It created a structure that was more transparent and created more accountability. It also introduced definitive structure and clearly defined the role of a Councillor and of the General Manager. A Councillors role was now clearly defined and included statements such as: provide a civic leadership role; to participate in the optimum allocation of the council’s resources for the benefit of the area; and to provide leadership and guidance to the community. Nothing in there about laying bitumen in front of your house or rezoning some land that you own. The Division of Local Government makes it patently clear in their Councillor guidebook. “While all council staff have a duty to carry out council decisions they are responsible to the general manager, not the councillors. Individual councillors cannot direct staff in their day-to-day activities.”
Despite all of these processes in place, many people still have negative perceptions of Councils and Councillors. There are 152 Councils across NSW with 1,500 Councillors and 50,000 employees. If all Councils in NSW were considered as one employer, they would be the third largest employer in Australia behind only the two supermarket giants. Unfortunately one bad apple spoils the bunch and the notable dismissal of Wollongong City Council in 2008 after a report by ICAC found evidence of ‘systemic corruption’ smears all Councils with the corruption brush.
Some might argue that the sacking of Wollongong is evidence that we do have a more accountable process than ever before – quite possibly the same type of behaviour may have occurred thirty or forty years ago and no action was taken. In our modern environment residents should have even more confidence in their Council because any dishonest behaviour will be found and the culprits dealt with by an official process.
The next time someone starts to tell you about their negative perceptions of their Council ask them for their proof – and then remind them of the quote by Anaïs Nin. Maybe the people who yell the loudest about dishonesty are the most dishonest?