Is Council the Third Party that wants to keep public information from the community?
During Public Forum at yesterday's (April 11th, 2018) Council meeting it was revealed that Council might well be up to it's old tricks of refusing to make available documents to the public when requested. Jim Bright, a resident of Narooma addressed the Councillors advising them that he was there to provide them with a progress report on a 'freedom of information' application that he had submitted earlier this year to the NSW Office of Sport. He advised the councillors "This matter is of relevance to the current debate around the community's right to access information associated with the council's application for a government grant for the construction of the proposed aquatic centre in Batemans Bay."
"The background is as follows.
"Last November, one of the members of the 'save our 50m pool group' requested, from the ESC, a copy of the application that the council had submitted earlier that year for the grant under the NSW Sports Infrastructure Fund.
"On 25 November, the council rejected that request and provided the following justification for doing so.
“Council has sort (sic) advice from the NSW Office of Sport and the NSW Department of Premier and Cabinet who are both involved with the grant applications. Both have confirmed that the applications are treated as commercial in confidence because to release such information would reduce the competitive value of the application placing Council at a competitive disadvantage amongst other bodies competing for the same funding.
Council agrees with this position and does not intend to release details of the grant applications.”
"That response from the council was referred to me for comment.
"My assessment was that there was a reasonable probability that this rejection was not justified within the relevant legislative and policy framework that applies to public sector agencies and councils in this State.
"Therefore, in order to 'flush out' whether this really was the official position of the Office of Sport and, if so, what exactly the justification was for refusing community access to the council's grant application, I lodged a formal 'foi' request with that agency for a copy of the council's grant application. I also requested copies of all associated correspondence between that agency and the ESC.
Jim rhetorically asked the councillors "So what's been the outcome so far?"
"Well, last month, the Office of Sport officially notified me that, in its view, the public is entitled to be given a copy of those documents – with some (apparently) minor redactions of certain personal information and the details of some costs associated with the provision of a service.
"Now there seems to be a problem here – because that's not what this council reckons the Office of Sport said only late last year.
"So was there a misunderstanding by council staff of that agency's position - or did the Office of Sport fail to give proper consideration to this matter at that time? Or is there some other explanation?
"This is an important question going to issues of transparency and accountability and our community deserves an explanation for the apparent discrepancy between the purported position of the Office of Sport last November and its position, as advised to me, last month.
"A second significant issue arising from this matter is that the Office of Sport has also advised that (an unnamed) “3rd party” has objected to the release of substantial parts of the grant application. (The primary parties to this matter are the Office of Sport and myself.) As a consequence, those particular parts of the application have not been released at this stage pending the possibility of that 3rd party formally appealing against the Office of Sport's decision to publicly release all parts of the application. The 3rd party has two months in which to appeal - either to the Information Commissioner or to the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal. That appeal period will expire on 14 May.
"Four weeks ago tomorrow, I emailed the Office of Sport asking it whether or not the ESC is that “3rd party”. To date, there's been no response to my email.
"Now there is a possibility that this council is not the objecting “3rd party” - but if it is, I believe that it should be owning up to it and should be providing the local community with an explanation for why it has decided not to accept the view of the relevant State government agency – particularly since the council had said that its decision last November had been based on the advice that it claimed it had received at that time from the Office of Sport.
"Thank you for your time. I'll keep you abreast of developments.
Is Council the Third Party blocking information being released to the public? No doubt, in due time, the third party will be unmasked.