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Four-year mayoral terms off the agenda

Electors will not be asked to decide if they want to elect a mayor for the Clarence Valley by popular vote at the next council election, due to be held in September this year. At the March 15 council meeting, the mayor, Richie Williamson, tabled the idea in a mayoral minute, which proposed: “The Mayor of Clarence Valley Council is currently elected each year by the Councillors. Do you favour the election of the Mayor by the electors for a four year term and without changing the number of Councillors from nine, including the Mayor?” This proposal revisited a decision made at the December 2014 council meeting that resolved to accept for and against cases “in order to assist voters to make an informed decision” regarding any future proposal to hold a constitutional referendum on mayoral elections – the mayor is currently elected buy councillors annually. The mayor wrote in his report to council: “There is a shift in NSW towards allowing elected mayors to serve in office for periods of longer than one year, as is the current practice. “The NSW Government Fit for the Future report states that ‘We will introduce possible longer terms for Mayors and clearer roles for council leaders. These changes will help to bring more stability and accountability to councils’.” The NSW Electoral Commission has indicated that it would cost approximately $16,000 to administer a constitutional referendum in conjunction with a regular election. Debate on the motion first focussed on a successful amendment, proposed and seconded by councillors Margaret McKenna and Jim Simmons, which changed the wording to: “The Mayor of Clarence Valley Council is currently elected each year by the Councillors. Do you favour the election of the Mayor by the electors for a four year term?” Councillors Toms, Simmons, McKenna, Lysaught and Kingsley prevailed in ‘simplifying’ the wording, despite Cr Williamson arguing that the words he proposed “came from the electoral commission”. During debate on the amended (substantive) motion, Cr Williamson rebutted a question from Cr Baker – “Given that the premier and the minister for local government have announced the possibility of two-year mayoral terms will be considered and resolved before the next elections, why wouldn’t we leave it until we get some certainty from them?” – with: “That’s a good question; this has nothing to do with that … this is about how a mayor attains office; you are speaking about a policy change that may or may not happen. “…The question of how the mayor attains office is not included in those discussions; that is a question that has to be asked of our community.” During debate, Cr Williamson said making a case against asking the people is “almost impossible to make” “I’m not afraid of asking the question … [or] of the answer … why not ask the question?” he said. “It’s a simple case of asking electors how they would like the mayor to attain office. “…It is a fundamental question about community engagement – would they like to elect the mayor or are they happy with the councillors electing the mayor?” Councillors Hughes, Toms, Baker, Kingsley, Simmons and McKenna spoke and voted against the idea. Cr Hughes said she “was not convinced it is a good idea” because a popularly elected mayor “could be inexperienced”, however, she flagged that she would make up her mind after hearing debate. Cr Toms questioned how a popularly elected mayor would be able to campaign on policies that may or may not be supported by the elected councillors and rubbished many of the ‘yes case’ dot points. “I’m not convinced by the yes case,” she said. “I haven’t heard from anybody that they wants to elect the mayor” and pointed out that Australia’s state and national political leaders are not popularly elected. Cr Baker said the question for him was “not yes or no”; he thought the decision was being made too early; “at some point we will be considering a two-year term” for a mayor, he said. Cr Kingsley feared that a popularly elected mayor would bring party politics into the mix and benefit “financially resourced candidates”; he, too, “strongly supported” the idea of two-year terms elected by the councillors. Cr Simmons said he agreed with Cr Kingsley. Cr McKenna wondered if a popularly elected mayor would result in “power to the people with the money and the influence”. In support, Cr Lysaught said the “people of the valley aren’t fools … and are more than capable of deciding who should lead this council for a four-year period”. Cr Howe supported the idea on the basis that it was a way of “engaging our community”.