One of the main roles of elected members is to make decisions on behalf of the local community. This is done at Council meetings. Councils meet regularly, at least once a month, and these meetings are open to the public. The agenda, or list of issues for discussion at the meeting, is made available to the public in advance so that the community knows which issues are being discussed. In special circumstances, parts of a Council meeting may be closed to the public, when matters of a confidential nature are being discussed [Local Government Act 1999 (SA) s 90(2)-(3)]. This might include an individual's financial circumstances, a particular staff member or legal matters. A person who enters (or tries to remain in) a meeting aware that an order has been made for a closed meeting is guilty of an offence and can face a penalty of up to $500 [s 90(5)].
Meeting procedures and rules
The meetings are guided by the Mayor or the Chairperson of the Council, and follow formal meeting procedures. These procedures ensure all elected members have a chance to speak about the issues and that all the listed items are discussed. There are special rules about how councils can re-visit and revoke or amend earlier decisions. These are known as "rescission motions".
When decisions need to be made, the Mayor or Chairperson calls for a vote. Members of the Council including the Chairperson, have the opportunity to vote with the outcome being decided by the majority decision. In Councils where there is a Mayor, the Mayor does not vote on an issue unless the vote is tied. In this instance the Mayor will make the casting vote to achieve an outcome.
Conflicts of interest and how they are to be dealt with
From time to time, a Council member may consider that their involvement in a particular Council decision could be viewed as a conflict of interest (referred to in the legislation as a material conflict of interest, see Local Government Act 1999 (SA) s 73). A material conflict of interest occurs when a person has a personal interest in an issue as well as a professional interest (in this case an interest as a Council member). For example, the Council may be discussing a development application that has been submitted by a close relative of a Council member.
Council members are required by law to disclose any conflict of interest they may have and are required to leave the room in which the discussion is taking place and are not allowed to vote on the particular issue. There are substantial penalties if a Council member votes with the intention of gaining a benefit or avoiding a loss [Local Government Act 1999 (SA) s 74(1)]. Under the Local Government (General) Regulations 2013 (SA) certain prescribed matters are excluded from this requirement, for example, discussion of policies relating to allowances and benefits payable to Council members (provided it applies to all members equally) [reg 8AAA]. It is also possible for a Council member to attend a meeting even if they have a conflict of interest but permission of the Minister for Local Government is required [s 74(3)-(4)].
Request by members of the public to address meetings
As well as attending Council meetings, in some Councils, members of the public can also make a prior request for permission to address the elected members and Council officers on relevant issues. In other Councils there are other opportunities to hear public views to reduce the length of formal meetings. Each Council will have a policy on how it deals with requests from residents to address the Council.
As well as full Council meetings, sometimes Councils also have committee meetings. These committee meetings allow time for more detailed discussion on particular subjects or issues, for example, planning applications. These committees make recommendations to the full Council, where the decisions are voted upon. In some cases, certain decisions can be delegated to these committees or even to individual council officers.
Whilst Councils must generally hold meetings at a place open to the public this requirement does not in itself make unlawful any informal gatherings or discussions [s 90(8)]. Examples of such meetings are planning sessions associated with the development of policies or strategies, and briefing or training sessions. If a Council intends to hold informal meetings they must adopt a policy for these meetings and comply with it. The policy must be available for inspection by the public and published on a website.
Further requirements as to how such meetings may be run are detailed under the Local Government (General) Regulations 2013 (SA) [see reg 8AB].
Most local Councils produce literature explaining the various policies and by-laws under which they operate. These are available from Council offices or from local libraries. Most Councils also now have web sites where this information can be found. Further information can also be found on the Local Government Association of South Australia's website.