Cape Town - A Western Cape High Court judge has sharply criticised the Oudtshoorn municipal council for allowing its political jockeying for power to distract it from its duty to citizens.

Judge Owen Rogers also warned councillors that they could be held liable for costs in terms of the Municipal Finance Management Act if they raised meritless claims in court.

He was handing down judgment in two applications, brought by the DA and heard simultaneously earlier this month, relating to the expulsion of the town’s DA and Cope councillors by the municipality’s disciplinary committee in February.

The judgment is the latest step in a year-long saga which began when a DA-Cope alliance won a majority in a by-election last August, effectively giving them the majority in what had been an ANC-led governing coalition.

Using a number of questionable stratagems, including expelling the DA-Cope councillors, municipal Speaker John Stoffels blocked the DA’s attempts to take control of the council.

Judge Rogers said: “It appears to me that, once again, the ratepayers are being asked to foot the bill for ongoing battles between political factions.

“In future litigation, the court may request full argument on why councillors and their parties, rather than the ratepayers, should be ordered to bear the costs of litigation. I cannot but think that over the past several years, the political factions in this municipality have allowed their unseemly jockeying for power to distract them from the mandate laid down in… the constitution… the Structures Act and the Systems Act. They exist for the community, not the other way round.”

The first application related to the expulsion of 10 DA councillors and one Cope councillor for missing three consecutive council meetings.

After terminating their membership of the council, the acting municipal manager immediately declared vacancies with the IEC.

A second leg of the application related to the expulsion of another DA councillor, after he also missed three consecutive council meetings, allegedly in contravention of the Local Government Municipal Systems Act.

The two applications were heard together.

Judge Rogers set aside the DA councillors’ expulsions, as well as that of the Cope councillor, and ordered the municipality to pay costs.

He also interdicted the municipality, its officials and the IEC from taking any action or calling for by-elections in respect of the seats held by some of the councillors.

Welcoming the judgment, Local Government MEC Anton Bredell said Judge Rogers confirmed that in terms of the constitutional framework of government, only he in his capacity as MEC of local government had the power to remove councillors.

“It is time that democracy starts winning in Oudtshoorn. I expect that the minority coalition in Oudtshoorn will this time abide by and respect the decision of the high court. In my view, it’s now time that the council concentrates its energy on upholding democracy and the will of the residents of Oudtshoorn.”

The MEC noted that in terms of the judgment, the “expelled” councillors had at all times remained members of the council.

The Oudtshoorn municipality said it was studying the judgment and would comment when proper legal advice had been considered.

The judgment opens the way for the DA-Cope councillors to once again bring a vote of no confidence in the municipality’s executive - the mayor, the deputy mayor and the Speaker - and so take control of the council.

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Cape Argus