Pages from councils_confidentiality_audit_2012The above graphic derives from the South Australian Ombudsman’s audit of 2011 into local councils’ use of confidentiality clauses within their Act. Whilst slightly different to the Victorian Local Government Act, the overriding principles and objectives remain the same – ie. local government decision making must be transparent and accountable.

We have repeatedly commented on the secrecy which permeates much of what goes on in Glen Eira Council and our firm belief that countless decisions, or ‘straw votes’ which amount to the same thing, are made behind the closed doors of assembly meetings. Discussion of items in camera is another well used, and over used tactic by this council. An earlier post (https://gleneira.wordpress.com/2011/12/17/a-record-to-be-proud-of/) detailed how many agenda items were ‘relegated’ to back room discussions and the appallingly low number of council decisions which were then made public. Not much has changed with this new council. Of the 50 agenda items decided in camera since November 2012, council announced only 30 decisions – many of which were straight out tenders.

The Local Government Act sets out the broad parameters for when a council may CHOOSE to exclude the public. Please note – this is not mandatory, but optional. The Act also requires councils to provide reasons for their barring of the public. In Glen Eira this requirement has reached the state of sheer farce. Time and again the ‘reasons’ provided are nothing more than tautologies designed to keep the masses ignorant – ie under s89 (2)(d) “contractual” which relates to a contractual matter. (in the minutes of 3rd September and 15th October 2013. Please note that neither outcome was reported upon.) Other in camera items not reported upon and which we believe have major import for the expenditure of council funds included: 

  • 9th April – 12.2 under s89 (2)(a) “personnel” and s89 (2)(d) “contractual” which relates to compliance with the Local Government Act. (More lawyer fees, we wonder?)
  • 2nd July – which relates to the contract for internal audit services (Given the jobs for the boys approach of this Audit Committee, we wonder which company was ‘rewarded’ with another contract and how much this cost ratepayers?
  • 13th August – under s89(2)(d) “contractual” which relates to completed capital works approved by Council. (Another stuff up? – GESAC, Duncan Mackinnon perhaps?)
  • 6th November – An item of Urgent Business under s89(2)(a) personnel and 89(2)(f) legal advice which relates to a personnel matter. (More lawyers, councillor code of conduct panels and more witch hunts? Our bet is Lobo!)
  • 17th December – under s89 (2)(d) “contractual” which relates to the contract for the Duncan Mackinnon Pavilion (Has Maxtra gone? Is this a new contract to fix up the problems? How much is this costing ratepayers?)

All of the above have remained ‘secret’. Yet they undoubtedly involve hundreds of thousands of ratepayer funds and residents are no wiser as to why this money is being spent, and whether or not, it is money spent wisely. A culture of secrecy does not serve the public interest and neither does it serve sound financial management.

In conclusion here are some extracts from the South Australian Ombudsman’s findings. (full report uploaded here).  We believe that they are most relevant to the situation in Glen Eira and probably many other councils in this state.

Audit opinion

The evidence from this audit indicates that councils commonly use the confidentiality provisions of the Local Government Act without fully considering or explaining the reasons for excluding members of the public from council meetings. This also results in too many meeting and document confidentiality orders being issued.

Some councils incorrectly believe that they are required to close meetings when they consider certain topics. It also appears that the special circumstances intended in the Act are being misinterpreted by some as a shield to protect their council from ‘pressure from the public’ when debating sensitive topics.

Other councils are misunderstanding or misinterpreting specific provisions in the Act when making an order to close a meeting to the public. They are consequently making orders which would be unlikely to withstand legal challenge.

I formed the view that councils are sometimes moving into confidence over matters of local sensitivity or controversy in an attempt to debate issues without pressure from the public. Such intent is contrary to the democratic objects of the Act.

Consideration should be given to amending the Local Government (Procedures at Meetings) Regulations to specify that the minutes of a council or key committee meeting must include a record of any document tabled at the meeting and/or any verbal briefing given to the meeting on a matter of council business. 

A commitment to compliance with the Local Government Act is essential to accountable administration and sound governance. It is important that councils are sensitive to the public’s demand for the open and transparent exercise of municipal power. As such, attention to both the letter and the spirit of the Act is a means of strengthening and improving relations with the community. This builds public confidence in local government.

In my view councils must, after identifying the relevant paragraph of section 90(3) of the Act, then articulate the reasoning behind the order. Details of the reasons for relying on the particular paragraphs in section 90(3) must be provided in order to allow the public to better understand the council’s decision for moving into confidence. This is part of good administrative decision-making. Further, articulating reasons would also help both the administrative staff and councillors to think more carefully about why the public should be excluded from the meeting. In the latter case, this may also help add an appropriate measure of caution to weighing up recommendations for secrecy.

As shown in Figure 3, I found that for 45 of the 80 agenda items examined there were no valid grounds for the council to exclude members of the public. On many other occasions I made the judgement that the order to invoke section 90(2) had been too broad and that many of the details of the discussion could have been held in public. The effect of this would be to limit the in camera deliberations to only those items which were properly the subject of a valid confidentiality order.  A recurring example of this is the issue of CEO performance reviews conducted regularly by councils. I advised councils that I could see no good reason to exclude the public from discussions and, consequently, from access to documentation, which covered, inter alia, the key performance indicators established for the CEO position and the criteria for assessing performance. I made the observation on a number of occasions that I can find no compelling reason for considering the matter of CEO performance reviews exclusively in confidence.

On another level, a common risk encountered by many councils during informal gatherings is the building of consensus. I note the advice on this prepared by the Queensland government for its local government sector:29

Building consensus, even in an informal manner, can effectively result in the ‘rubber stamping’ of decisions during subsequent council meetings.

Councillors are required to attend meetings with an open mind and without having predetermined the outcome under consideration. As such, avoiding situations where debate and discussion result in consensus building is imperative. 

In my view there can be neither public nor council benefit in suppressing knowledge of how a council is providing its ratepayers with value for money in a tender process. As suggested, a redacted report or ‘blind bidder’ approach can be used if names and amounts are a sensitive issue. My preference is for councils to consider these decisions in public with appropriately modified or redacted reports which can also be made public promptly when the decisions are made and the contract is awarded.

Second, there is a discrete issue with regard to the tabling of documents in confidential meetings. The concern I have is that sometimes documents which are part of the material considered by council in making a decision are not referred to in the minutes. As such, people wishing to understand a particular council decision, or the basis upon which it was made, may have difficulty following the logic and authority of the decision. I found records of meetings where a document has been considered by the council but no reference note or copy made of the material for the minutes.

 

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