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Councillors apparently now allowed to block emails from ratepayers and media

A few weeks ago The Beagle learnt that Councillor James Thomson had begun blocking emails to his Councillor provided email account. The blocking came soon after all of the councillor laptops, ipads and phones were rounded up by Council staff to be trawled looking for evidence of any breach of confidentiality by the councillors. The councillors were also formally interviewed by a private investigator. The investigator rang The Beagle and was advised of the background of the information that Council suspected of being leaked by a councillor. The councillors now await a report. One clear outcome of this particular witchhunt has been the realisation by our councillors that any correspondence or contact with ratepayers can be scrutinised by staff and any email communication, covered under the State Records Act, can be accessed from their councillor email account for the purpose of evidence that can be used against them. This revelation has resulted in some of them going to ground and only communicating using their own private phones or email addresses. It is not at all surprising that Councillor Thomson, soon after, began blocking email addresses from members of the public who often communicated with him on council matters. Of interest, as the "leak" and subsequent $15,000 investigation was based on an email sent by The Beagle to all councillors, we soon discovered that Councillor Thomson had also blocked incoming emails from The Beagle (see message below from a test email sent 7th November 2020). It is not known if the councillor also attempted to delete the string of communications between himself and The Beagle and the other recipients of this blocked email alert before hand.

The Council do make it clear on their website that council staff have access to any @esc domain email traffic saying "Please note that emails sent to the @esc domain are handled by Eurobodalla Shire Council staff". Now that the councillors have seen first hand the capacity council staff have to recall council provided phones, laptops and ipads the need for caution to protect members of the public (and even staff) from being revealed in correspondences is moreso. While the rules around councillors blocking the delivery of incoming emails that might prove to be incriminating to the councillor, or author, remain unclear it is clear that Council is still quite keen to act as a go between as you can see from this correspondence between the General Manager and one of the now blocked ratepayers who once enjoyed Councillor Thomson's back-and-forth correspondences.

As can be seen above it appears that the General Manager endorses the actions of her councillors deliberately blocking members of the public communicating directly with an elected official by way of a council provided email address. Why Block rather than simply not read? The process of Blocking stops the incoming message from being received. This means that there is no evidence of having any knowledge of the contents of an email. Had the email been allowed in it could be argued that it was read under preview. Blocking is an effective way of ensuring emails can not be used against you. The General Manager appears to be happy with the councillor continuing to use this method to ensure incoming emails from specific authors can not be vetted. As to whether this is allowed or not by the Office of Local Government will now be matter for the current Code of Conduct that has been lodged. Irrespective of the result of that Code of Conduct it is clear that the councillors actions and the dismissal of the action by the General Manager passes the Pub Test. Especially in light of the General Manager's sentiments around Public Access being dissolved saying, by way of background, that Public Access was developed to enable the community to connect with Councillors. “Since its implementation, the way we communicate has evolved and Councillors are now more connected with their community. Councillors can be contacted via email or mobile with all contact details published on Council’s website.” It appears that Councillor Thomson is the exception to the rule and from the letter received this week by a now blocked member of the public it appears that councillors are under no obligation to ensure they can be contacted via a council email address. Fortunately we still have some decent councillors who openly engage with their community via council provided email addresses and phones and do respect the provision of the technology provided by Council (for free) to do so. To discover councillors intentionally blocking ratepayers and the media from communication is most disappointing and moreso when it appears condoned by the General Manager reflecting that it must also be acceptable councillor behavior in the eyes of the Office of Local Government. For those wanting to contact Councillor Thomson it is suggested that you write to him at his address in Belowra, knowing that the letter will be delivered, confidentially and away from any prying eyes in Council. Drop us a line (by email of course) if you too have been blocked by any of our councillors.

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