More Improper Secrecy By Council Officials
My name is Jim Bright and I am a resident of Narooma.
I'm here to speak to you in the context of the extraordinary level of secrecy and non transparency that has prevailed within this council in recent years.
At the last meeting of this council, you will recall that a number of people, including myself, argued that, from both a good governance and legal perspective, this council was obliged to publicly indicate the nature of the two matters, that had been described in the agenda only as confidential “personnel matters”, before you were allowed to legally go into closed session.
Despite those submissions, the General Manager subsequently put to this group of councillors that the proper interpretation of the relevant provisions of the Local Government Act 1993 was that you were not allowed to reveal to the community the nature of the matters that you were about to decide.
As you know, in an apparent acceptance of her advice over ours, the majority of you then voted to go into closed session without letting the community know the nature of the matters in question.
Having little doubt that the General Manager's advice to you was incorrect, since that meeting I have made further investigations into this issue.
Those inquiries are not yet fully complete but, never-the-less, I am of the view that the results so far should be brought to your attention immediately in the public interest.
In 1997, the government introduced into the State Parliament a bill called the Local Government Amendment (Open Meetings) Bill.
In his related parliamentary speech, the then Attorney General stressed the fundamental principle that (and I quote)
“the ability of the public and the media to attend council meetings and observe the deliberations and decisions of elected representatives plays a crucial role in achieving better standards of accountability”.
This particular speech is a mine of policy advice and principles on appropriate council transparency and I would have liked to have read much of it to you now – but time won't permit, and so I will send a copy of it to all of you later today.
But I will read the following paragraphs which are of particular relevance to the assertions that the GM made to you on 13 June.
“Concern has been expressed that the current circumstances under which a meeting may be closed are too broad. Some of reasons given by some councils for closing meetings to the public in recent times have been spurious, contrary to the intention of the Act and, in some cases, simply unlawful.
For example, some councils have excluded the public and the press from meetings when issues such as …. the performance review of a general manager …. were being discussed.”
So let's be very clear about this.
Twenty years ago, the State government and (as you will see from the speech) the NSW Ombudsman became concerned about the fact that some councils were behaving improperly by closing meetings in various inappropriate circumstances - including closing meetings for the consideration of the performance reviews of general managers. The official minutes of the last meeting now indicate that that was precisely the substance of one of the (so called) “personnel matters” on the last ESC agenda.
In 1997, and subsequently, the Parliament made changes to the Local Government Act in an attempt to prevent such re-occurrences.
At the end of the Attorney General's speech in 1997, he said
“I anticipate that the Local Government Amendment (Open Meetings) Bill 1997 will provide a fresh impetus for all councils, and in particular those councils in which closed meetings are now a regular feature, to be more accountable to their communities. This will result in a more responsive and responsible form of government at the local level.”
Well it would seem that, unfortunately, the then Attorney General has not yet been completely successful in that endeavour.
27 June 2017 Editors Note: Jim Bright presented the above during the Public Access of Eurobodalla Shire Council's ordinary meeting of June 27th, 2017. He could only address the Chamber of Councillors, gallery and and staff as Live Steaming to the internet is not in place for Public Access. At the end of his presentation Councillors were asked by the Mayor if they had any questions of Mr Bright - There were no questions asked. Councillors present were Innes, Pollock, Constable, Tait, Nathan, Thompson, Mayne and Brown. McGinlay was absent on the day.