The vast majority of NSW councils refuse point blank to release supposedly public information on request.
The Newsroom’s Statewatch team has spent the past five months requesting detailed figures of travel and entertainment expenditure from NSW councils.
Most councils across the state have been reluctant to help. Of 152 local bodies, fewer than 10 have been willing to release the information.
In the interest of transparency, The Newsroom asked “Why?”
We sent reporter Eddie Mills to sit down with former council employee Paul Ortega to find out his views on our investigation from a council’s perspective. Here’s what he discovered.
When Macleay College students had the opportunity to experience the life of an investigative journalist, none realised what they were in for.
Each student contacted the councils by phone and then sent formal emails requesting the information. That’s where most hit a brick wall.
Paul Ortega has worked as a cultural and information services officer, event supervisor and project coordinator for Manly, Mosman and City of Sydney councils.
We asked him why we’d received so little cooperation.
“Even though the information may be accessed by the public, most councils have so much protocol in place and are generally busy with their own work that merely leaving a message with someone will take time to hear a response,” he explained.
Mr Ortega said it takes more than one phone call to get the information you want.
“This is sensitive information that would be held closely by general managers and other significant figures within each council. These are all people at the top of the tree when it comes to councils.
“Some positions have been held by the same people for many, many years. They have seen and heard it all before so some new way of saying a same-old concept won’t get past them.
“Although [that information] is apparently free to access by the public such as yourselves, I think you could have been more strategic and clear in your approach. It all seemed rushed and student-like.”
Mr Ortega said the key to getting information from councils is building a relationship with them.
“Once you learn to accept this you will also figure out how to appeal to those whom you can then create a mutually beneficial relationship with.
“If they can’t help you, their subordinate could, and more than likely that position would still be helpful.”
Part of the Statewatch investigation is to see how difficult it is to access information. If councils refused to provide information the Statewatch team filed a request through Freedom of Information laws, otherwise known as the GIPA Act.
We found asking for an FOI was sometimes seen as confronting or threatening. Mr Ortega agreed.
“I think sending an FOI would just scare people off and this approach should have only been used as a last resort,” he said.
“Although people use this ploy [FOI], day in and day out, for things like land records and what not… there are other less intrusive ways of gaining information from specific people and institutions.”
Mr Ortega explained the approach that he would have taken to the project.
He suggested we should have originally asked “an informed question laden with previous history and present status of the council”.
He also explained he would point out “benefits to the council giving precise attention to the public field as well as yourself”.
Another suggestion was to arrange a meeting with an appropriate person.
“I’d email a set of questions a week prior to the meeting outlining my intentions clearly.
“Councils have a lot of procedure, it’s something you get used to every day, week, month and year; some things just literally take much longer than you ever thought they would.” – Eddie Mills
Statewatch: Country councils more willing to confide