Municipal Matters: Councillors are a critical link. Here’s why.

Councillors provide the critical political link between the executive mayor or executive committee and the community.

This podcast explains the different types and duties of municipal councillors, namely ward councillors and proportional representative councillors. Source: Civics Academy

Therefore, councillors can facilitate the consultative processes with the public prescribed by both the Municipal Finance Management Act (MFMA) and the Municipal Systems Act, particularly with regard to budgets, integrated development plans, budget-related policies, tariff-setting for services, indigent policies, long-term borrowing, and contracts.

READ: SALGA’s Roles and Responsibilities booklet for councillors

The purpose of this guideline document is to define the roles and responsibilities of councillors and officials in a municipality.

This link, and their duties, reminds us that we must take local government elections seriously. The quality of your councillor can have a direct impact on your life.

The Municipal Systems Act and the Municipal Finance Management Act expand the role of councillors to include an oversight role through council meetings. They must refrain from involvement with the implementation of policies. Their role is to provide the direction but not to be involved in the administration.

It is this separation that is often misunderstood and corruption occurs when the line of separation is blurred.

Local and metropolitan municipalities are divided into wards. A ward councillor represents a specific ward on the municipal council and is elected in local government elections through the first past the post system. A Proportional Representative councillor represents a political party on the municipal council and is elected through the system of proportional representation. Source: Civics Academy

The oversight role of councillors may be summarised as follows:

  • Setting the direction for municipal activities.
  • Setting policy parameters to guide municipal activities.
  • Setting strategic objectives and priorities stating the outcomes and outputs to be achieved.
  • Monitoring the implementation of policies and priorities by evaluating reports of outputs and outcomes.
  • Ensuring that corrective action is taken where outputs deviate from plans.
  • Accountability to the community for performance in terms of predetermined objectives. 

In terms of the Municipal Systems Act and Municipal Finance Management Act (MFMA), councillors are not permitted to be members of the boards of municipal entities, audit committees and tender or bid committees; councillors should not serve on planning tribunals and other approval forums.

The MFMA suggests that municipal councils strengthen their oversight role by forming portfolio committees within the council.

The Municipal Structures Act allows the council to form a budget and finance committee, a public accounts committee and a municipal services committee (to include water, electricity, refuse removal).

The financial management tasks that council is required to undertake so that it fulfils its oversight function include the following:

  • Consider and approve the annual budget and ensure that the budget and integrated development plan are aligned.
  • Approve budget-related policies on relevant taxes, user charges, indigency policies, credit control and supply chain management.
  • Consider the views of the community and the government regarding the budget and establishment of municipal entities.
  • Review the budget and performance of entities under council control.
  • Review audit and annual reports and adopt an oversight report once these are received.
  • Consider capital projects and contracts with financial implications of more than three budget years.
  • Take responsibility for incurring debt and determining security over debt.
  • Consider the sale, disposal, or transfer of all capital assets (although this may be delegated to the municipal manager to a value determined by the council).
  • Review unauthorised and unforeseen expenditure and reporting on unauthorised, irregular, and fruitless and wasteful expenditure.
  • Investigate allegations of financial misconduct and take appropriate action where necessary. 

Councillors cannot have an operational role, as this would interfere with the role of the executive mayor or executive committee and also weaken the accountability of officials to the council. This is in line with the role of elected representatives in Parliament and the provincial legislatures, who do not become involved in the day-to-day activities of the executive.

Councillors need to fully understand their oversight responsibilities to be effective in their role. Given the importance of this oversight role, both the Municipal Systems Act and the MFMA protect councillors’ policy-making role by separating it from the implementation role of officials.