No more shams

CANDIDATES and voters using sham leases in council elections will be clamped down on as part of major new local government reforms intended to clean up messy and chaotic councils.

Local government minister John Carey this week announced the final package of the long-awaited reforms to the creaky 25-year-old Local Government Act 1995.

The reforms read like a remedy to what’s gone wrong at prominent councils that’ve been suspended over the past few years like the City of Perth and Canning, including:

• Introducing a new local government inspector to investigate and oversee complaints with the power of a standing inquiry, hoped to head off the need for suspensions by intervening before things get disastrous;

• Creating a new Local Government Conduct Panel that actually has some teeth to suspend councillors for up to three months, replacing the old standards panel which couldn’t do much beyond ordering councillors to apologise for breaching minor rules;

• Councillors who are suspended three times by either the conduct panel or the minister are disqualified from being an elected member for 10 years;

• An end to “sham leases” where someone creates a lease simply for the purpose of running for council or voting.

Sham leases have been an ongoing problem at Perth council, even after the 2020 Report of the Inquiry into the City of Perth revealed sham leases had been taken out by both council candidates and many voters — enough to have possibly tipped the election results in some years.

But even after that, at the 2020 election several voters were identified as having taken out a lease on a date after they’d applied to vote, an indicator of a sham lease. The WA Electoral Commission nevertheless allowed them to vote, and these new rules will prevent that by requiring a minimum lease period of 12 months before someone can nominate or vote, and it precludes very small sub-leases which were the source of many dodgy votes.

One change that’s caused some concern among sources that regularly inform the Voice on local government matters is a provision that allows council CEOs to declare a complainant as “vexatious”.

The provision’s rationale says “unfortunately, local government resources can become unreasonably diverted when a person makes repeated vexatious queries, especially after a local government has already provided a substantial response to the person’s query.

“It is proposed that if a person makes repeated complaints to a local government CEO that are vexatious, the CEO will have the power to decide that the complainant is being unreasonable, and that they will no longer respond.”

We’ve seen cases where residents with reasonable gripes have already been given the cold shoulder or refused further replies, prompting fears from a few of our sources that legitimate critics might be deemed vexatious.

The reform says vexatious complainants who think they’ve been wrongly tarred will be able to appeal to the inspector. The government plans to introduce legislation to enact the reforms to parliament by the end of the year.

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