Protecting reputations, relationships and budgets – is mediation the new ‘assumed’ skill?*

Enforcement of the Code of Conduct for council members is one area where Local Government in South Australia is seeing an escalation in disputes and increasing legal costs.

With similar responses in councils nationwide we have been seeing a clear trend toward more complex disputes being dealt with by councils, both internally and externally.

The challenges of COVID-19 add further complexities for councils trying to get disputes resolved.

To assist councils is responding to these challenges, the independent not-for-profit – Australian Disputes Centre – has recently introduced a flat fee, fast track mediation service specifically designed for Local Government.

Chief Executive Officer, Deborah Lockhart, emphasising early resolution, said, “Corporate Managers are increasingly turning to dispute resolution processes outside of the traditional legal route.

“Beyond scaling down excessive spending and management time, they are recognising that reputations and relationships also need protecting.”

There is a growing recognition within councils that preventative strategies are needed to limit the escalation of disputes, e.g. incorporating dispute resolution clauses within their contracts,
ensuring that professional mediators are appointed as required, and upskilling their council staff to resolve disputes much earlier in the dispute resolution process.

Former Chief Executive Officer of Local Government Association of South Australia, Wendy Campana, said, “Having the skills to mediate and listen to all sides of an issue can be invaluable in building community confidence in council.

“Often the issues addressed by councils go to the very nature of the way of life in a local community, and they can be quite passionate in seeking a timely response.”

In these challenging times, “we are starting to see councils using workplace flexibility, and the impetus presented by COVID-19, to undertake dispute resolution training” said Lockhart.

“Corporate Managers are recognising that mediation training is strengthening their internal capability, with staff gaining the highly transferable skills of the interest-based negotiator and conflict resolver.”

*Copy supplied by Australian Disputes Centre