Councils can delegate some of their decision-making powers to special committees of the council. Members of special committees can consist of people who are:
The council always retains control over who can be a member and what the committee is empowered to do. Delegations are made at a formal council meeting and specify what the committee is empowered to do.
When a council delegates to a special committee, it allows the committee to exercise the power to make certain decisions ‘as the council’. This is why the Local Government Act subjects special committees to the same statutory procedures and conduct as the council.
Members of special committees are required to comply with conflict of interest and confidentiality provisions in the same way that councillor do.
A special committee’s decision-making power is limited only to those matters covered in the formal delegation document. If a special committee determines matters that are not contained in the delegation, they cannot be given effect until separately decided by the council.
Special committees can assist a council by spreading a council’s workload. Councils may delegate to a special committee to deal effectively with routine or more minor decisions that would otherwise take up valuable time in a council meeting.
For example, some councils have ‘standing committees’ of councillors who make these decisions in assigned portfolio areas. Oversight of ‘one-off’ events and short-term projects can also be given to a special committee in order to spread a council’s workload.
Often knowledge and interest in a particular council activity lies with people at a local level. They can be delegated by council to act as a special committee for that function. An example of this is the delegated management of council-owned facilities such as halls and recreation reserves. These committees might consist of a councillor, user-representatives and interested community members.
Occasionally a council delegates some of its powers to a special committee with particular expertise on a particular subject.
Advisory committees can also assist councils by spreading a council’s workload. They can provide particular expertise to help the council make its decisions, or help engage community resources and opinion. They don’t have any formal, delegated powers to act in place of the council.
Their decisions or recommendations have no legal standing unless they are adopted by the council at a formal meeting.
An advisory committee often still operates under a ‘Terms of Reference’ document, in which the council sets out the committee’s purpose and how it will function. As with special committees, the council retains control over the membership and purpose of the committee.
Short-term advisory committees (sometimes called ‘working groups’ or ‘ad hoc groups’) may be created for a particular purpose and disbanded when that purpose is achieved.
A council is not bound to accept a recommendation of an advisory committee.
It’s important that councillors find out about the detail of relevant issues before making decisions at council meetings.
Some councils hold briefings or workshops to help brief councillors on day to day issues affecting the council. These are generally internal sessions with council staff but sometimes outside advisors are present.
Briefing sessions enable councillors to discuss issues among themselves and with senior staff. These briefing sessions can help councillors understand a complex issue. They provide a way for councillors to request additional information to assist them in making decisions.
Councillors cannot make legally binding decisions in briefings or workshops. At any meeting involving at least half the councillors and at least one member of staff (referred to as ‘assemblies of councillors’) where matters are likely to lead to a formal council decision, a record must be kept of those items considered and councillors are subject to the conflict of interest rules.
Councillor briefing sessions should not be confused with public briefings. Public briefings are held by councils when they want to brief members of the community about council activities, or other significant matters that might be coming before the council in the near future.
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