Let's hope the state government's local government reforms are not just about being 'fit for the future' and mergers but also incorporate a wide-ranging list of reforms desperately needed in the local government sector.
In my experience as a councillor I have come to the view that Mike Baird and Paul Toole are right when they say local councils need reform. But the kind of reform is the key to genuine change for the better.
It seems a little lazy to only identify mergers as the way to make councils all fit and proper.
I've been a councillor for 16 years and since 2006 I have been on the board of the Local Government Association. While I'm not advocating on behalf of any organisation, I certainly can put forward a number of needed reforms from my 16-year observation of councils from across the whole state.
For example, mergers won't solve the property developer issue in which property developers can sit as councillors, have access to all council's strategic plans, have undue influence on other councillors around the clock on all issues, and trade their vote on non-development issues in return for favourable treatment when their particular area of interest (when they are out of the room) comes up.
Already the government has identified property developers as being an area of particular concern, having banned them from donating to candidates and political parties. Yet there is this loophole in which developers themselves can still run for council office. To me that simply does not make sense.
That's not to say all property developers on councils are crooks. But it is fair to acknowledge that perception can sometimes be just as bad as reality.
Take, for example, if a development company wanted to come to a town or city and develop a big property that would be a huge benefit to the area and community. It would be very easy for the principal of that development company to look down the list of local councillors and see other property developers among the local councillor ranks and quickly decide there were too many stumbling blocks on that particular council and simply move to another council area.
My suspicion is if the Baird government went in with full force and banned property developers from councils it would have a positive impact on the economic outlook for the whole state. Businesses would have the confidence their developments would be treated fairly. Indeed, one could argue this reform would cause a new wave of confidence in the building industry that would potentially lower unemployment in NSW.
Developers are not the only bad eggs in councils that need to be part of the new wave of Baird reforms. New laws need to come into play so councillors cannot trade votes when they have conflicts of interest.
Take, for example, Councillor 'A' asks Councillor 'B' to move a motion because Councillor 'A' has a conflict of interest. Only for Councillor 'B' to then ask the favour to be returned and gets Councillor 'A' to do the same when one of his matters comes before the council. This causes the community and business to lose confidence in councils and it makes a mockery of the current legislation concerning pecuniary and conflicts of interest.
I would also like to see the Baird government clean up the financial accountability of councils.
We all know councils are fully audited and their financials are freely available for all to see. But what about the actual auditors. In some cases we have the situation in which the same local auditors have been in place for decades and have built a very close and cosy relationship with their local council.
A good reform would be to create an auditing arm of the State Office of Local Government to take control of councils' auditing process so it can be done at an arm's length from councils.
It would be a fairly simple operation for the State Office of Local Government to create an auditing and financial outfit whose job it was to audit councils. That way all councils would be audited by the same firm, and be on an even playing ground and can be compared fairly to other councils.
Talking about money and revenue, isn't it time we as a nation have a serious conversation about council rates? Rates are a left-over system of taxation on landowners from feudal times.
Considering rate revenue doesn't even account for 50 per cent of Dubbo's income let's have a serious look at abolishing rates all together. In conjunction with the federal government there could be a national system in which a proportion of GST revenue goes directly to local government. It would be a timely discussion considering the GST is back on the national agenda.
Imagine the amount of internal savings councils would have if they ceased being tax collectors. Administratively councils would save a lot of money while every quarter simply receiving a cheque from the government for their share of the GST.
With rate pegging in place in NSW, councils may as well give up their tax (rates) collection power and get on board with a streamlined federal system that cuts red tape.
Rate pegging effectively means local councils do not have any say on the amount of money they can levy on their local communities. An automated streamlined system would no doubt save a lot of money while not taking away local democratic decision making because councils effectively have had none in this area anyway.
Another reform councils need to be honest about is the workload of councillors and councillors' fees and payments.
I challenge anyone to have a good look at any local government area and you will find a raft of councillors who attend a lot, attend some, and some who attend basically no committees.
Since the new Local Government Act of 1993 came in, councillors get paid a monthly fee regardless of how many meetings they attend. Before that time "aldermen" were paid per meeting attendance.
This old system surely gives the elected decision makers more enthusiasm to be part of the process and attend more meetings and be part of the game.
Any local government reform that is proposed simply must find ways to get the elected representatives more enthusiastic about their communities and the process of which they are a part.
I am a big supporter of Mike Baird. In my mind this government is probably the best state government we have had since the war.
I love the fact Baird is a reformer and isn't afraid of change. But out in the bush, especially around Dubbo, merging councils won't solve the bigger problems of local government.
We will still see the vast amounts of rural roads being unattended, we will still have people irate with the planning system being too slow to get their development proposals through, and we will still have councillors pushing for rate rises to cover the infrastructure backlogs.
All that would change with a merger is that the Dubbo council chambers would have responsibility for an area as far away as Mumbil and Trangie. Hardly democratic representation with councillors not knowing the area they represent because of such huge distance.
There is a hell of a lot of reform needed in councils. Merging councils is certainly not the silver bullet needed to reform the sector.
Full-scale change that incorporates accountability of senior staff and councillors, a new model of council funding and new ways for the community to have faith in their councils is the real key to local government reform.