Joanne McCarthy on ‘Local councillors for democracy year’ 15.1.2011


Joanne McCarthy writes some great columns in the Herald but one this week tops them all for me.

In ‘Council capers covered’  she proposed that 2011 be a celebration of transparency in local government:

‘Could I suggest we make 2011 local councillors for democracy year, when elected representatives ask a simple question every time the word “confidential” appears, or they’re told a matter is “operational” and hence not a councillor’s responsibility.

‘And that simple question is, why? Why does that report need to be considered in a confidential session? Why can’t it be discussed in public? Why is a matter “operational”?’

My personal favourite terms are ‘internal working document’ (IWD) and ‘internal memo’. If a document is called either of these it’s deemed (at least by the person writing it) to be secret and exempt from release.

Several times over the last year secrecy has stood in the way of the campaign to preserve the Laman Street figs. The first time it became obvious that residents and ratepayers aren’t automatically entitled to know what council managers are doing was when we phoned council to request a copy of the radar report done to map the trees’ roots and were told council hadn’t received it. Yeah right.

That phone call was over a month after the study was done and while the delay surprised me I didn’t question it. When I phoned a week or so later to try again it was decided I would have to put in a freedom of information request for it.

This is when I first heard the term ‘internal working document’ because that’s what the report was labelled – almost three weeks after I’d asked for it. IWD’s were exempt under FOI legislation and didn’t have to be released so represented a seemingly insurmountable barrier to reading the document.  I suppose that excuse hadn’t occurred to them in the beginning… 

Of course, it wasn’t an IWD but it took a lawyer friend to work that out.

Joanne McCarthy writes about a Cessnock councillor called James Ryan who has been asking ‘why’:

‘In the past few months he has challenged the need for confidential consideration of some matters, arguing that the rhetoric at both federal and state government level is for open government and it’s up to councillors to stand up for the principle at local level.

“The Local Government Act allows for certain things to be confidential, but most councillors don’t have the knowledge or courage to challenge the general manager if they’re told something should be dealt with in a closed session,” he said.

There really needs to be a wake-up call to the majority of councillors in NSW that they have a statutory duty to represent the community.”

Marking a document ‘confidential’ should not be the default position. Almost nothing should be secret. A change in legislation in mid 2010 was supposed to increase access to local government information.

On the Office of the Information Commissioner website is this quote:

‘The new right to information laws promote openness, accountability and transparency and will make government agencies more proactive in providing information to the public.’

Doesn’t look like it so far – it just takes an extra week.  Home.


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