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Accountability

Display image of community consultation cartoon

Being accountable means…
“being liable to be called to account, to have to give an explanation, to be responsible”
(Oxford Dictionary)

The Local Government system in South Australia is underpinned by the principle that councils are primarily accountable to their communities in carrying out their roles and functions and achieving their objectives. Ultimately, accountability is measured through the ballot box at elections every four years.

Accountability means little unless the people who are entitled to receive explanations have information about which they can ask questions. In their strongest form, accountability arrangements also include prior opportunities for the community to provide input into council decision-making at a strategic and policy level.

In this section, we address the following:

  • Measures in the Local Government Act 1999 that ensure members of the community can provide input into council decisions and can inform themselves about what the council is doing.
  • Links to further information on accountability topics.

The Local Government Act sets out a framework to ensure the local accountability of a council. THe framework features requirements for public consultation, public access to meetings and documents, a management cycle linking strategic planning, budgeting, expenditure and reporting, and annual reporting to the community and to Parliament.

Frequently asked questions in relation to council accountability requirements:

1) When and how are councils required to consult with the community?

Under section 50 of the Local Government Act, all councils must have a public consultation policy. The Act sets out circumstances in which consultation must be carried out in accordance with this policy.

The Act also prescribes minimum consultation requirements for some specific activities such as by-laws or order making and in some circumstances sets out specifically what a council must do rather than referring to the public consultation policy eg publishing the rates declaration in the Government Gazette.

Councils can apply flexible approaches to consultation, and adopt locally relevant approaches to consultation. 

Councils are required either to follow the relevant steps set out in their public consultation policies, or to adopt a specific minimum consultation process in the following circumstances:

  • Representation Reviews
  • Change in status or name of a Council
  • Principal Office – Opening Hours
  • Commercial Activities – Prudential requirements
  • Public Consultation Policies
  • Code of Practice – Access to meetings and documents
  • Strategic Management Plan
  • Community Land – Classification and Management Plans; Leases, Licences or Permits
  • Roads - Planting or authorising planting of trees
  • Passing by-laws
  • Policy for Making Orders

In addition, specific public consultation requirements are also prescribed in other legislation for certain activities relevant to councils, for example the Development Act.

The public consultation policy must set out the steps that council will follow to provide a reasonable opportunity for submissions to be made in cases where the Act requires council to follow its public consultation policy. The minimum standards to be adopted where the Act requires council to follow its consultation policy are:

  • Publication of a notice describing the matter under consideration in a newspaper circulating within the area of the council and inviting interested persons to make submissions within a period stated in the notice, being at least 21 days
  • Council consideration of any submissions made in response to the invitation

A council may from time to time alter its public consultation policy, or substitute a new policy. When it does so the provisions of section 50(4) requiring public consultation apply, unless the alteration has only minor significance, and is likely to attract little or no community interest.

A council’s public consultation policy must be made available on the council's website. A copy must also be made available for inspection, without charge, at the council’s principal office during ordinary office hours, and for purchase on payment of a fee fixed by the council.

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2) What public access is available to Council meetings and meeting documents?

The underlying policy of the Local Government Act 1999 is that council meetings are open to the public and specified documents associated with meetings are publicly available.

In limited circumstances the Local Government Act enables councils to meet in confidence to discuss a particular item and to make an order to restrict public access to documents about that item.

A council is required to prepare and adopt a ‘code of practice’ regarding its application of the confidentiality provisions (s92), and follow the relevant steps set out in its public consultation policy before adopting, altering or substituting its code of practice.

Councils may also participate in informal gatherings or discussions, provided that delegated powers are not exercised, or a matter is not dealt with in such a way as to reach a decision outside a normally constituted meeting. The following are examples of informal gatherings or discussions:

  • Planning sessions associated with developing policies or strategies;
  • Briefing or training sessions;
  • Workshops; and
  • Social gatherings to encourage informal communication between members or between members and staff.

In special circumstances the public can be excluded from a part or parts of a council meeting or a committee meeting, so that certain matters may be received, discussed or considered in confidence. These matters are listed in section 90(3). In summary, they include:

  • Unreasonable disclosure of information concerning the personal affairs of any person (living or dead)
  • Trade secrets
  • Other commercial information of a confidential nature if disclosure is likely to prejudice the person supplying the information or to commercially advantage a third party and disclosure on balance against the public interest
  • Information likely to confer a commercial advantage on a person council is (or proposed) doing business with or to prejudice the commercial position of council and disclosure would be on balance contrary to the public interest
  • Security of the council, members, staff or property
  • Maintenance of law including investigation of offences and right to a fair trial
  • Legal duty of confidence such as a court order
  • Information relating to litigation which will or may affect council
  • Legal advice
  • Confidential information provided by the Crown or a public authority or official disclosure of which would be contrary to the public interest
  • Tenders for the supply of goods or services, or carrying out works
  • A Plan Amendment Report under the Development Act before release for public consultation
  • Review of a determination of council under the Freedom of Information Act.

If a matter has the potential to embarrass the council, committee, members or employees of the council, or would cause a loss of confidence in the council or committee, that is not a sufficient reason to exclude the public from a council or committee discussion.

All council and committee meeting documents are available to the public including reports, except where the matter is heard in confidence and the meeting orders the documents be kept confidential. The order must specify the date or circumstances when a confidentiality order will expire or when it must be reviewed.

The exclusion provision cannot be used to keep secret the identity of a successful tenderer or the identity of land acquired or disposed of by the council.

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3) What can I do if I think Council’s decision to exclude the public is not reasonable?

The Ombudsman has specific powers in Section 94 of the Local Government Act to investigate if a council decides unreasonably to exclude the public or to refuse access to meeting documents.

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4) What other council documents are available to the public?

In addition to meeting agendas and minutes, section 132 and Schedule 5 set out certain other documents which must be made available to the public. Many of these documents must also be available on the Council website. The documents include:

  • Reports on representation reviews
  • Register of elected members’ interests
  • Register of members’ allowances
  • Register of employees’ salaries and benefits
  • Register of community land
  • Management plans for community land
  • Register of public roads
  • Register of by-laws
  • Candidates’ campaign donations returns
  • Code of conduct for elected members
  • Code of conduct for employees
  • Code of practice – access to meetings and documents
  • Notice and agenda for Council, committee and elector meetings
  • Documents and reports to the Council or committee, not ordered to be confidential (note Freedom of Information provisions)
  • Recommendations adopted by resolution of Council
  • Record of delegations
  • Contract and tender policies
  • Policy for the reimbursement of members' expenses
  • Strategic management plans
  • Draft annual business plan
  • Annual business plan (after adoption by Council)
  • Annual budget (after adoption by Council)
  • Audited financial statements
  • Annual report
  • Assessment record
  • List of fees and charges
  • Public consultation policies
  • Policy on the making of orders
  • Grievance procedures for the review of Council decisions
  • Charter for subsidiaries established by the Council or for which the Council is a constituent Council
  • By laws made by the Council.

The above provisions are in addition to the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act 1991 where councils must make all of its ‘policy’ documents available to the public. These documents are those which contain guidelines, rules, policies, practices and procedures used by the Council that may affect citizens’ rights.

Even if a council has decided to keep documents confidential under the Local Government Act, a person may make a Freedom of Information application to access such documents. The application will be assessed in accordance with the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act.

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5) How do councils’ strategic management planning, budgeting, expenditure and reporting all fit together?

The pattern of management accountability set out in the Act links strategic management pans (set out for at least four years with community input) with annual business plans, financial statements and annual reports.

The Local Government Act and Regulations provide for the following:

  • A strategic management plan that looks forward at least four years;
  • An annual business plan, linked to the strategic plan;
  • Internal controls and audit committee;
  • Annual financial statements;
  • Independent audit;
  • The annual report with defined minimum contents; and
  • Mirroring provisions for council subsidiaries;

All the above plans and documents must be publicly available.

Council’s responsibilities include planning for the current and future requirements of its area, across a wide range of activities.

Strategic management plans under section 122 of the Act are not required to take any defined form and may vary from council to council, but collectively the plans should include the following features:

  • Council objectives for at least four years specified period (between three and five years), including how those objectives align with those of other Councils and other spheres of Government, and how any overlapping services can be coordinated.
  • Assessments of: the council's financial sustainability; the extent or levels of services the council intends to provide to achieve its objectives; the extent to which any infrastructure will need to be maintained, replaced or developed; anticipated changes in real estate development and demographic trends; the council's proposals with respect to debt levels; and any other anticipated or predicted changes that might affect the costs of the council's activities or operations.
  • The principal activities to achieve the council's objectives.
  • Estimated income and expenditure
  • The measures council will use to assess its performance  

The plans must be consistent with the State Planning Strategy and the Development Plan or Plans for the council area, and with other relevant statutory policies and plans.

Members of the public must be given a reasonable opportunity to be involved in the development and review of council’s strategic plans, through a consultation process.

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6) What about Council's financial accountability?

Measures for the financial accountability of councils include requirements for the adoption and reviews of the council's annual business plan, internal controls, annual financial statements and external audit.

Each year, between the end of May and the end of August, councils must adopt an annual business plan and budget for the forthcoming financial year.

The annual business plan must first be prepared in draft form, and put to the public for consultation, before the council formally considers their adoption.

Together the annual business plan and budget set out the activities to be undertaken and the expected expenditure and income for that particular year. Performance measures should also be included, and the budget must be reviewed at least quarterly during the year.

Councils are required to have systems of internal controls in place to help maintain high standards of accuracy and reliability of council records, and adherence to management policies.

In addition, a council must have an audit committee to review the adequacy of the council’s systems and practices on a regular basis, liaise with the independent auditor and review the annual financial statements of the council. Membership of an audit committee must include at least one person, who is not a member of the council but has relevant financial experience.

The requirements for the preparation of council financial statements are prescribed in the Act and Regulations. Each year the council must prepare, by the second Friday in September, a set of financial statements and notes prepared in accordance with Australian Accounting Standards (AAS27 for Local Government). 

Once the statements and accompanying information have been audited, they must be submitted to the Minister for State/Local Government Relations and other prescribed bodies by 30 November each year, and included in the council annual report.

Councils are required to have an external auditor who is a qualified registered company auditor or a firm comprising at least one registered company auditor.

The audit is carried out in accordance with section 129 and Australian Auditing Standards and Auditing Guidance Statements. The auditor provides an audit opinion, and also a report to the council on matters arising during the audit including any irregularities identified. Most irregularities are solved between the auditor and the council.

The auditor of a council is required to report to the Minister for State/Local Government Relations under the following circumstances:

  • Where a council fails to rectify an irregularity;
  • Where a breach of an Act comes to the attention of the auditor;
  • Where there is evidence of a serious financial irregularity;
  • Any irregular or unauthorised act or omission, of a substantial nature;
  • The reason for any adverse audit opinion, qualification or limitation.

On the basis of a report from an auditor of a council the Minister may appoint an investigator under the relevant sections of the Act and may take other action.

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7) What do Councils have to include in their Annual Reports?

Annual reports are a major way for councils to communicate progress and achievements to their local communities and beyond, and also to the South Australian Parliament.

Under section 131 of the Act, the Annual Report must be adopted by the end of November each year and made available to members of the public. It must also be submitted to the Parliament by the end of December each year.

Annual Reports report on Council business operations, the services Council provides, and performance and achievements. They are comprehensive documents, available to the public upon request.

Schedule 4 of the Local Government Act lists what must be contained in the annual report. This includes:

  • Audited financial statements
  • A list of the registers, codes of conduct and codes of practice that councils are required to keep
  • A list of council’s policy documents
  • Details of the allowances paid to council members
  • Senior executive officers salary and benefits packages
  • A report on the use of s90(2) and 91(7) to exclude the public from meetings and keep documents confidential
  • A report on Freedom of Information Act applications
  • The number of electors per elected member, and a comparison with councils of a similar size and type
  • The timing of the next review of representation
  • Procedures available to electors to make submissions on representation matters
  • Council’s performance in implementing its strategic plan, and its annual business plan, and its targets for the next year
  • The extent to which services have been subject to competitive tender or other measures to ensure services are delivered cost effectively, and the extent (if any) to which council pursues policies for purchasing local goods and services
  • The decision-making structure of the council
  • The training and development activities for members of the council
  • Details of Equal Employment Opportunity Programs and other human resource programs
  • Progress of management plans for community land.

In addition to the specific requirements above, some councils provide additional information about the area, the council's achievements and future plans, and the services available locally. Some councils also prepare a summarised or abridged version of the full annual report which they circulate and make available widely.

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