Councils caught keeping secrets

Around the nation, councils appear to be keeping ratepayers in the dark – whether it’s through secret meetings or questionable spending – raising concerns about whose interests municipalities are actually protecting.

An investigation of all 79 Victorian councils by The Age has revealed that six of them hold more than 20 per cent of their meetings behind closed doors.

The worst offender by a long mile was East Gippsland, which met in secret 41.5 per cent of the time. The shire, which covers 14 per cent of the state, has a population of around 80,000 and its main industries are tourism and logging.

It was followed by Melbourne City (29 per cent) and Whittlesea (27 per cent). Just five councils made clandestine decisions less than one per cent of the time: Mt Alexander, Greater Dandenong, Alpine Shire, Bayside and Glenelg.

“There is an argument for some closed door meetings, The Age reported. “Councils must tender to the open market for services, and secrecy in bids for contracts is a necessary part of purchasing. Meetings are also closed when dealing with people’s future employment. The sexual harassment claims involving former Melbourne lord mayor Robert Doyle are a case in point.”

However, other councils welcome the community’s input on their deliberations. Mayor Bronwen Machin of Mount Alexander, which rarely has closed meetings, said: “We handle a significant budget on behalf of our community for many services, to which our community have contributed to. They vote for us, they need to see we are doing what we promised to do.”

August has been a tumultuous month for many councils. Here is a round up of what transpired around the nation.

In the nation’s most populous state, a parliamentary joint committee has been established to look at caps on state and local government spending. But the association representing councils has raised fears that the probe may lead to unfair elections and gags on community input.

“This legislation could be perceived as a gag law, and may be inconsistent with the implied right to freedom of communication – a position the courts have said is necessary to ensure voters can exercise an informed choice at the ballot box,” said Local Government NSW president Linda Scott.

Meanwhile last month, a move to force Tasmanian councils to amalgamate was gaining momentum.

Launceston Chamber of Commerce executive officer Neil Grose said: “The current system has not served ratepayers nor business well. It is well past time for a strong review of local government, with a view to implementing a system of fewer councils.”

A bid for the West Tamar and George Town councils to merge fell through earlier this year, after the latter’s councillors voted against taking the proposal to a community consultation period.

Tasmania has 29 councils for a population of 515,000, compared with metropolitan Sydney, whose 30 councils represent 5 million ratepayers.

Ipswich Council was sacked by the State Government following damning allegations of corrupt behaviour by several councillors and executives spanning decades.

A Crime and Corruption Commission report on the municipality had found: “Council policies and procedures were either not followed, or were ignored or circumvented, including by councillors and senior executive employees, resulting in the misuse of council funds and assets.”

South Australia
All but two of the state’s councils have slammed government legislation to introduce rate-capping, saying it would disadvantage many councils and their ratepayers. The new laws are expected to be discussed when South Australia’s parliament resumes this month.

Mayor Robert Bria from the City of Norwood Payneham & St Peters said: “Councils have looked at this very closely and obviously looked at the experience in NSW and how things are trending in Victoria, where a number of independent reports have shown that rate capping doesn’t work. It’s financially crippled a lot of those councils and created a massive infrastructure backlog which will take years to catch up on.”

Western Australia
Bullying by councillors and ratepayers will form part of research by University of Western Australia’s Public Policy Institute on a new study into the mental health of municipal chief executives.

Local Government Professionals WA chief executive Candy Choo said: “(Chief executives are) struggling with community expectations, some elected members, where behaviour is causing unnecessary workplace pressure and inappropriate behaviours. The CEO is left to be hung out to dry.”

Do you take an interest in your municipality’s deliberations? With the exception of discussing commercially sensitive deals or personal staffing issues, do you think there is ever a case to be made for councils to meet in secret? What has shocked you the most about your councillors’ behaviour?

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