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The Local Government system

Local Government is one of the three spheres of government in Australia, namely – Local, State and Commonwealth Governments.

As a responsible sphere of Government, Local Government councils have considerable discretion in exercising their powers and responsibilities, and in planning for the specific and diverse needs of their local communities. Councils are well placed to know and understand the views and aspirations of the local community and to influence - in a socially just and ecologically sustainable manner - what sort of place the Council area will be.

Currently, Local Government in South Australia is made up of 68 separate councils covering a large part of the State: the metropolitan area of Adelaide and the more densely populated country areas. Each council is a different size, has a different number of people living in the area, and has different community facilities and public spaces.

The more remote areas where fewer people live are not within Local Government council boundaries. In some remote areas, certain local services are provided under arrangements with the Outback Communities Authority.

So, how are councils formed, how do they operate, and how are they accountable? This chapter of this guide provides the answers to some of these frequently asked questions.

Frequently asked questions about the Local Government system:

  1. What are the laws that apply to councils?

1) What is a council?

Councils are made up of councillors who are elected at ‘periodic elections’ every four years or at ‘supplementary’ elections if a vacancy occurs during the four year period. They are chosen – through such elections – by the communities of specific areas to make decisions on behalf of those communities.

Sometimes the council area is divided into sections called wards (electoral districts) with ward councillors. In these cases, electors vote for representatives for wards rather than for the whole council area. The Adelaide City Council has both ward councillors, and area-wide councillors. 

The rules about who can vote, who can nominate as a candidate, and for the conduct of elections are set out in the Local Government (Elections) Act 1999. Read more about Elections and voting

The principal member of the elected council is usually known as either the Mayor or the Chairperson. Usually, a mayor is elected by all voters in the area, while a chairperson is chosen by his or her fellow councillors after an election. However, a principal member who is chosen by fellow councillors might sometimes also be described as the Mayor. 

Councillors are entitled to an annual allowance and reimbursement of expenses incurred in the course of carrying out their duties as a councillor. Councillors operate within a code of conduct, and are required to provide details of personal interests in a 'register of interests. There are strict rules that prohibit a councillor from dealing with any matter that might raise a 'conflict of interest'. Read more about The role of councillors 

Every council is required to conduct a review of its representation structure, on a regular basis; generally after two four-year election cycles. A representation review must examine the number of wards (if any) and the number of elected councillors.  Read more about Representation reviews...

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2. What are the laws that apply to Councils?

The Constitution Act 1934 (SA) – Part 2A section 64A guarantees that a system of Local Government will continue in South Australia.

The Local Government (Elections) Act 1999 prescribes the requirements and processes for Local Government elections. Read more about elections and voting...

However, the main statute that governs the structure and operation of Local Government is the Local Government Act 1999 (SA). This gives councils broad powers to make decisions and deliver services, without intervention from the State Government or the Minister for State/Local Government Relations except under exceptional circumstances.
Read more about review mechanisms ...

The Local Government Act sets out provisions that might be used to create a new council in an area where there is no existing council, and provisions that can be used to change existing council boundaries. Read more about Representation reviews...

But the Local Government Act does much more. It sets out the rules under which councils operate and make decisions including:


Councils also have a role in administering other laws, for example, laws relating to building and development, keeping pets and animals, public health and safety, and the environment. These various Acts giving councils certain powers include:

  • Local Government Finance Authority Act (SA) 1983
  • Development Act (SA) 1993
  • Dog and Cat Management Act (SA) 1995
  • Public and Environmental Health Act (SA) 1987
  • Environment Protection Act (SA) 1993
  • Food Act (SA) 2001
  • Fire and Emergency Services Act (SA) 2005
  • Road Traffic Act 1961

These Acts can be accessed from the South Australian Legislation website.

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3) What do councils do and how do they operate?

Although each council is different, they have the same roles, functions and objectives of all councils . Read more about the roles, functions and objectives...include the following:
  • Representing everyone in their communities, preparing strategic and management plans and making decisions about priorities for services and facilities in the area.
  • Providing services for the well-being of people who live and work in their communities in an ecologically sustainable way, that is, striking a balance between social, environmental and economic priorities.
  • Representing the interests of local communities to the wider community, including to State and Commonwealth Governments, about what needs to be done locally.
  • Providing open, responsive and accountable government, and ensuring the available resources are used fairly, efficiently and effectively.

Employed staff provide advice to councillors, implement council policies, act on council decisions, and provide services, advice and information about Local Government to residents, ratepayers, and visitors to the area. Some staff are provided with certain delegated powers to make decisions and allocate funds on behalf of the council.

  • Approximately 10,000 staff (8,000 full time equivalents) are employed by councils in South Australia.

The Chief Executive Officer of the council may also be called the town clerk, the district clerk, the city manager or some other similar title.

Councils may form committees to deal with some tasks, such as work related to development, finance, recreation, and young people, to manage council property, or to carry our a particular project. Councils determine who is on each committee and the reporting arrangements of the committee to the council. Some committees may include members who are not members of the Council . Read more about council decision making...

Committees associated with planning and development are constituted under the Development Act and are subject to different arrangements.

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4) What services do councils provide?

There are some services that local governments are required by law to provide, and other services that a local government may choose to provide.
 
Each year, a council consults its community with a draft annual business plan, in which it proposes a range of services; trying to balance the needs and desires of the community against the cost of providing each service.
 
Among the services that must be provided, include the legal regulation or management of: 
  • Land use planning, development and building
  • Fire prevention
  • Dogs and cats
  • On-street car parking
  • Food and public health inspection

Other services are provided and work is carried out at the discretion of each Council. These may include: 

  • Road construction and maintenance
  • Footpath construction and maintenance
  • Street lighting
  • Waste management and recycling
  • Library and information services
  • Stormwater drainage
  • Care and maintenance of parks, ovals and sporting facilities
  • Swimming pools and leisure centres
  • Community facilities and halls
  • Coastal care
  • Local community and business directories
  • Home and community care services for elderly people and people with a disability
  • Tourism initiatives
  • Crime prevention programs
  • Wetlands and water resource management
  • Promoting economic development.
  • Regulating private car parks at the request of the land owner.

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5) How are council services funded?

The Local Government Act provides for councils to raise revenue through council rates and service fees and charges such as building approval application fees, dog registration fees, hall hire fees, charging users for use of facilities, and waste management fees.

Revenue also comes from State and Commonwealth Governments as either general-purpose grants or for specific purposes. For example, State grants help to run libraries and establish Community Wastewater Management Systems. Commonwealth general purpose grants – known as ‘untied’ grants – are distributed to Councils through the South Australian Local Government Grants Commission.

Most councils also work on local projects with regional, State and Commonwealth agencies. Examples include building walking trails, protecting and preserving history and heritage, building and maintaining tourist facilities, and arts and cultural facilities.

In addition, some councils undertake activities that provide profits from their operations, such as saleyards, caravan and car parks, and/or investment of surplus funds to generate income.

Generally speaking business activities run by councils must operate on a competitively neutral basis meaning they must not compete unfairly with private businesses.

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6) How are councils accountable to their communities?

The Local Government system in South Australia is underpinned by the principle that councils are accountable to their communities – ultimately through the ballot box – at elections every four years.

It is expected that councils will make decisions on behalf of their entire communities and balance a range of different interests and points of view. Therefore, the more people who actively participate in council matters, the more likely it is that council decisions will reflect the concerns and aspirations of its whole community.

To support councils in their efforts to be accountable to their communities, the Local Government Act provides general rules under which:

  • Council meetings must be open to the public (although meetings may be closed at times to consider items in confidence).
  • Many council documents must be available to the public, including council meeting agendas and minutes (other than items considered in confidence), strategic management plans, annual business plans, annual budgets, reporting on performance in quarterly budget reviews, audited financial statements, annual reports and proposals to deal with public land. Read more about access to meetings and documents...

The Freedom of Information Act 1991 also applies to councils. Each council has an appointed FOI officer, who can advise about what is required in making an FOI application. For further information visit the State Records, Freedom of Information website.

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7) What do I do if I have a complaint?

The first thing to do is to contact your council to inform them or your complaint and to discuss the matter. Visit the Local Government Association website to find out how to contact your Council, or to identify which Local Government Council you need to contact.

Often complaints can be sorted out very quickly, either by providing information, clarifying what has happened, or finding out the reasons for a council action or decision.

If your initial enquiry does not resolve the matter, you can also ask for a formal internal review at the council office. However, if the matter is not satisfactorily resolved, further information is available in this Guide about other review mechanisms available to you. Read more about complaints, grievances and review mechanisms...

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8) How can I get involved in Local Government?

Getting involved in Local Government, and your local council, is an opportunity for you to influence what will happen in your local area now and in the future. Your involvement means you can have influence on what your council does, how it spends its money, what services and facilities it provides, what development takes place in your neighbourhood, and what local issues are taken up by your council. Here are some of the ways you can get involved.
  • Vote in the Local Government elections – Voting is voluntary and any Australian citizen over the age of 18 years has the right to vote.
  • Go to council or committee meetings and listen to what is talked about and what decisions are being made.
  • Get involved in public consultation events and have your say.
  • Get to know your local elected councillor.
  • Nominate as a candidate in Local Government council elections.
  • Volunteer for community activities sponsored by your council. Contact your council for further information about how to get involved in these.

You can also contact the Local Government Association of SA to find out more about Local Government councils in general, and to access teaching and student resources.

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9) What is the Local Government Association of SA?

The Local Government Association of SA (LGA) is the peak representative body for Local Government in South Australia, and is recognised in the Local Government Act 1999 as a public authority for the purposes of advancing the interests of Local Government.

The LGA provides a range of resources and information to support councils and councillors, as well as education and training materials for students and teachers.

For further information about the LGA visit www.lga.sa.gov.au

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