By Michael Giles
THERE is no doubt that the level of secrecy in Local Government in Victoria is plumbing new depths at the moment as indicated in recent weeks by the charges of “serious misconduct” levelled against East Gippsland Councillor Ben Buckley.
Cr Buckley was brought before a Conduct Panel last week for allegedly leaking the details of a $16,000 conflict management program paid for by the East Gippsland Shire Council in 2015 to help resolve internal infighting.
At best, it’s the risk averse nature of government bureaucracy these days that’s consigning all but the most mundane of decisions to locked vaults. At worst, the practice is taken as an opportunity for our bureaucracies and sometimes even our elected council representatives to cover up their own poor performance or potentially embarrassing situations.
In February this year, for example, Cr Jeremy Rich, declared a pecuniary interest and exempted himself from the council chambers while the council passed a motion relating to a water agreement between the shire and Ansevata Nominees Pty Ltd, a firm owned by the Rich family.
No details about what is believed to have been a settlement of legal action between the shire and Cr Rich’s family company were revealed, and while that may be fair enough, the community was entitled to some sort of explanation.
Now it is believed the shire is approaching another settlement with Ansevata Nominees in relation to the same water agreement but again there has been no indication of how much or what’s at stake.
It is also understood that Cr Don Hill is still seething over the release of an ‘Open Letter to Councillors’ penned by him at the start of the present regime that he didn’t want released to the public.
Also, it has been reported that both the Bass Coast Shire and South Gippsland Shire councils are dealing with charges of councillor conduct breaches which, as yet, have not seen the light of day.
There’s also the case in the Supreme Court, against the South Gippsland Shire, over claims that it declined to release reports into complaints about nuisance noise coming from the Bald Hills Wind Farm, although the shire now claims to have released the requested information.
As the Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass said in December last year, following an investigation into the transparency of local government in Victoria:
“Why does transparency matter? Simply put, secrecy breeds suspicion. Decisions made behind closed doors, not published on council websites or otherwise exposed to the public gaze, make people suspicious about whether the decision was fair or, where money is involved, whether it is a good use of public funds.
“While there are legitimate and sometimes unavoidable reasons why some matters must remain confidential, and the public interest in transparency must be balanced against other interests including the privacy of individuals, transparency has long been regarded as one of the best tools for combatting corruption and increasing public confidence in government,” Ms Glass said.
Our councillors need to remember that they have been put there by the community as its representatives in the decision making process and they must make every attempt to release information the public is reasonably entitled to know about.
The default position for local government bureaucracy should be to release all information, and be required to make the case for keeping issues confidential, not the other way around as is presently.
Councillors need to continually insist, and where necessary, get their own legal advice to ensure that they are being as transparent as possible because it will inevitably come back to bite them in the end.