New local government laws hold councillors to account for their behaviour, but not for their spending.
This month NSW Local Government Minister Don Page announced changes to the councillor Model Code of Conduct and new powers to improve dysfunctional councils across the state’s 152 local government areas.
The new laws include the power to intervene at an early stage against dysfunctional councils and order local governments to improve or, if that fails, suspend councils for up to three months.
The legislation improves existing laws, which only allows councils to be sacked after lengthy periods of misbehaviour, dysfunction, expensive public inquiries or an intervention by the minister and governor.
The changes come amid a Statewatch investigation by The Newsroom into councillors’ spending, which sought breakdowns of travel and entertainment expenditure as it applied to each councillor and senior staff member at all NSW councils. The investigation found a need for more transparency in councils spending on travel, entertainment and dining but this is not being looked at.
The Independent Review Panel is currently in the initial stages of its Destination 2036 initiative which aims to improve councils. The terms of reference for this review include things like “the ability to support the current and future needs of local communities, the ability to deliver services and infrastructure efficiently effectively and in a timely manner and the financial sustainability of each local government area”. Transparency is no where to be found in the review.
The Statewatch investigation does not suggest councillors misuse their allowances but reporters found that detailed figures are not disclosed to the public and only basic breakdowns of spending are published in councils’ annual reports.
Over the past six months Statewatch has tried to obtain these figures through GIPA requests but have been rejected by most of the councils in NSW.
Jamie Parker, Green’s Minister for Balmain, said “This is typical of government bodies and organisations. They see these GIPA applications as a nuisance.”
Michael Johnston, the performance audit leader of the Audit Office of New South Wales said that transparency is important and how it is achieved “will depend largely on legislative, information and privacy frameworks”.
“We note some jurisdictions including Scotland require elected officials to disclose such information. This level of transparency needs the support of systems that capture and report the information in a cost effective way”.
In the Division of Local Government’s Guidelines for the payment of expenses and the provision of facilities for Mayors and Councillors in NSW monetary limits for councillor allowances are determined by the council and must be clearly stated and justified within councillor expenses and facilities policies.
In accordance with clause 217 of the Regulation and for the purposes of transparency and accountability, councils must include “detailed information in their annual reports about the payment of expenses and facilities to councillors”.
The information required includes all expenses enabling a councillor to undertake his or her civic functions, including expenses of phone calls, conferences, training, interstate and overseas travel and care.
Statewatch found that most councils do not include these figures in detail in their annual reports.
Mr Johnston said “some councils may not capture the information in a way that makes it easy to report individual’s expenses as a matter of course” and “while councils are a public authority under GIPA, clause 5 is not specific about what information they have to provide”.
The draft action plan for Destination 2036 was released for consultation in December last year and DLG has received 111 submissions from councils, organisations and the community.
One council said, “Any changes to structure should be based around commonality of interest. Transparency of organisations essential.”
In the Green’s submission they said, “In the interests of transparency, tenders for public sector work and the expenditure of public funds should be assessed and decided on in an open forum.”
There are currently seven reviews in local government, some of which address the issue of “rate pegging” and look at rate evaluations or “slugging the home owner”. But none relate to transparency of councillor expenses.
Mr Parker said “They [councils] don’t see transparency as a priority.” – Candice Cokinas and The Newsroom‘s Statewatch Team