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Council history

Council is not a ‘Corporation’, as is sometimes imagined. The members constituting the Council are simply people chosen by the body corporate of the town to conduct its affairs. They are known as the Lord Mayor, Councillors and citizens of the City of Melbourne.

Creating a Town Council

In 1842, the Act incorporating the Town of Melbourne provided for the creation of a Town Council to administer the affairs of the town, as well as for the election of town councillors and aldermen.

To enable an election for Town Council to take place, the Act provided that every male person of the full age of 21 years (who was not an alien, had not received public relief, had no children in a charitable institution and who had occupied premises in the town or within seven miles of it for one year) should, on being enrolled, be a burgess, (a citizen) and a member of the body corporate of the mayor, aldermen, councillors and burgesses of the town.

Temporary officers

Before the machinery for the creation of the Town Council could be set in motion, there was a need for an interim Mayor, Aldermen, Assessors, and Collectors and a Town Clerk, to compile and revise the first Burgess (citizens) roll and conduct the first election.

On 30 August 1842, Superintendent La Trobe appointed a number of people to carry out those duties temporarily until such officers had been officially elected. With the exception of the collectors, these people were all officers of the government.

The Act provided for three citizens from each ward to be elected as councillors for the new town. The term of office was to be three years, with one councillor from each ward retiring each year (if still qualified, however, a retiring councillor was eligible for re-election). There were four wards in Melbourne at the time - Bourke Ward (north-west), Gipps Ward (north-east), La Trobe Ward (south-east) and Lonsdale Ward (south-west).

Annual elections

The municipal year was from 9 November one year to 8 November the following year; annual elections were to be held on the first day of November on each succeeding year. The financial year was from 1 January to 31 December.

The Act also prescribed that after the first election of councillors, the councillors elected were to elect four aldermen (one to represent each ward) to be either from within their own membership or from those qualified to be councillors. Of the four people elected, two were to continue in office for six years and the other two for three years only. Thereafter, on the ninth day of November in every succeeding third year, one half of the whole number of Aldermen were to retire (if still qualified, however, a retiring alderman was eligible for re-election).

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The first elections for the Town Council

Although the Act incorporating the town provided for the first election of councillors to take place on the first day of November following the passing of the Act, the election did not take place until 1 December 1842.

‘Wildly exciting’ election

According to the newspapers of the day, the first election was a wildly exciting and keenly contested one. The licensed hotel trade had prominence due to the absence of sufficient public halls for polling booths and committee rooms.

The four wards with their polling booths were:

  • Bourke Ward, The Crown on Queen Street
  • Gipps Ward, The Caledonia on Lonsdale Street
  • La Trobe Ward, The Eagle Inn (afterwards The Bull and Mouth) on Bourke Street
  • Lonsdale Ward, The Royal

Those elected were:

  • John Thomas Smith, John Patterson, William Kerr (Bourke Ward)
  • Henry Condell, John Dickson, George Beaver (Gipps Ward)
  • Andrew Russell, Daniel Stoodhart Campbell, George James (La Trobe Ward)
  • John Orr, Henry William Mortimer, John Pascoe Fawkner (Lonsdale Ward)

On 3 December 1842, the 12 councillors met at the Royal Hotel in Collins Street, took the oath of allegiance to Queen Victoria and made declarations of their acceptance of office.

First mayor elected

On 9 December, they met again at the hotel behind closed doors to elect a mayor and aldermen. In a close election, Henry Condell was elected the first Mayor of Melbourne. He and Andrew Russell were elected the first aldermen for a six-year term, with William Kerr and Henry William Mortimer elected the first aldermen for a three-year term.

The first meeting of the Town Council for the transaction of business was held at the Royal Hotel on 15 December 1842. The proceedings were made open to the public. Allowances and salaries to the Mayor, the Town Clerk and Town Surveyor were fixed. Charles King was appointed as Town Clerk and took over from the interim Town Clerk, H. F. Gurner. William Weston Howe was appointed Town Surveyor.

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Composition of the first Town Council

The Council in 1842 comprised 12 people, an alderman and two councillors for each ward, the Mayor and the aldermen being elected from within this membership of 12.

However, on 19 December 1844, Act 8 Victoria No.12 to amend the original incorporating Act was passed and section 10 of that Act provided that if a councillor was elected to be an alderman, then his seat as an elected councillor became vacant. This increased the composition of the Council to 16 members. In 1853, an Act to regulate the tenure of office by the Aldermen of additional wards of the City of Melbourne (Act 17 Victoria No. 3) was passed.

That Act was then repealed in 1863 by Act 27 Victoria No.178, which provided in Sections 28 and 29 for aldermen to hold office for periods of four years each and to retire on the ninth day of November (but to be eligible for re-election if still qualified). Section 31 of the Act provided that:

"...nothing therein contained shall be held to deprive any alderman of the right to continue as a member of the Council for one year after the expiry of his term of office as alderman".

Alderman office abolished

In the absence of a mayor (or the Lord Mayor after 1902) at any meeting of the Council, an alderman was chosen as chairman (Section 93 of Act 6 Victoria No. 7). In 1939, the office of alderman was abolished with the coming into operation of the Melbourne and Geelong Corporations Act 1938.

The last alderman elected to the Council was the Honourable A. A. Calwell, who was elected as alderman for Hopetoun Ward on 12 April 1939. He is believed to have been the only person elected an alderman without having been elected as a councillor previously.

In 2001, the electoral model was changed. For the first time, Lord Mayor was to elected directly, rather than by Council.

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Appointment of Commissioners at the City of Melbourne

Under the provision of the Local Government (City of Melbourne) Act 1981 (No. 9525), the Lord Mayor and Councillors went out of office on 6 May 1981. Three Commissioners were appointed:

  • Peter Thorley (Chairman)
  • Neil Smith
  • Richard Allston

These Commissioners were replaced by elected Councillors in 1982. In a reflection of the turbulent times afflicting local government in Victoria during the 1990s, the City once again came under the reign of Commissioner under the provisions of the City of Melbourne Act (1993).

The four Commissioners were appointed in November 1993 as part of State Government reforms to local government in Victoria. The Commissioners were:

  • Kevan Gosper AO (Chief Commissioner)
  • Professor John Rose (Deputy Chief Commissioner)
  • Catherine Walter
  • Kevin Courtney.

In March 1996, these Commissioners were replaced by elected Councillors. The new council was comprised of nine elected councillors and the Lord Mayor. Four Councillors were elected from the four wards and the other five were elected from the entire City of Melbourne. Ivan Deveson AO was elected as the Lord Mayor and in contrast to the yearly terms served by previous Lord Mayors, the new Lord Mayor was elected to serve a three-year term.

Council chambers, Melbourne Town Hall