New South Wales local Councils have been uncooperative when asked to release detailed information about their finances to The Newsroom.
The Newsroom’s 14 reporters investigated 152 councils across the state [in an ongoing investigation known as Statewatch] and requested breakdowns of travel and entertainment expenditure as it applied to each councillor and senior staff member.
Reporters were each given a list of about 15 councils. Initially, they emailed the councils and then followed them up with several phone calls.
After more than five months of “to-ing and fro-ing” the general consensus of the team was that their requests were rarely prioritised.
By law, councils are required to provide certain reports upon request and most have them posted on their websites. However when asked for a more detailed account of these figures the majority were reluctant to release them.
Under Clause 217 (1) (a) of the Local Government (General) Regulation 2005, councils are required to provide costings for councillors and senior staff members.
Kate Gregson, corporate planning coordinator for Tumut Shire Council, who is studying a bachelor of law at the University of Southern Queensland, said, “As it is a requirement under the Local Government Regulation to provide this information in council’s annual report, I fail to see how any council would or could deny you access to this information.”
“Council does have the right to refuse information under sections of the Government Information (Public Access) Act 2009, the main section being if it is in the public interest not to disclose. I do not believe the information being requested falls into this category.
“Tumut Shire Council actively encourages the release of as much council information as possible to ensure transparency of the organisation and its operations and have no issues with providing this information to you,” she said.
One council willingly sent a thorough financial breakdown to reporter Jessica Amir, then later said this was a mistake and recalled the information.
Rockdale City Council declined Ms Amir access to entertainment and travel expenditure and advised her that their records did not capture these expenses because “entertainment and travel expenses are not material expenses, thus the accounting ledger does not capture details at the intrinsic level you’ve requested but does capture the amount spent”.
Nigel Gladstone, who contacted 12 councils, found most councils were slow to respond and some were not able to locate the appropriate person to speak to.
Kempsey Council was the only council on his list to reply within a week and give him some of the information requested, whereas Lachlan Shire Council failed to provide a formal response despite several requests.
“It took several phone calls and emails to reach the person able to answer our request for information at almost all of the councils. Several councils were wary of the survey and would not help us,” Mr Gladstone said.
Council spending of taxpayers’ money is public information and can be obtained through a formal application through the GIPA – Government Information (Public Access) Act 2009 – which means a lodgement fee of $30 and a processing fee of $30 per hour for the required hours of work.
Clause 5 of the GIPA Act contains an extensive list of additional open access information that must be made publicly available by local councils including annual, financial, and auditors’ reports.
Sophie Cotsis, Shadow Minister for Local Government, Housing and for the Status of Women, said, “Ratepayers and residents have a right to know about where their rates go, and information about council finances and items of expenditure should be fully disclosed”.
Reporters attempted to obtain the information through the informal processes of the GIPA Act but a large portion of councils said they were not willing to release figures without a formal GIPA request in place.
Hornsby council refused to supply their cost breakdown to Mr Gladstone, they wrote, “should you wish to proceed with your request to the level of detail noted below, it will be necessary to lodge a formal application under the GIPA Act”.
Reporter Danielle Abboud found The City of Sydney, Wingecarribee Shire and Tamworth Regional councils also insisted on receiving GIPA applications for the information that was not already provided in the reports.
Temora Shire Council completely ignored the request for a detailed breakdown and the only response Miss Abboud received from them was an email receipt that said that her “email was deleted [by a third party] without being read.”
Several councils including Upper Lachlan Shire Council and Uralla Shire Council failed to respond despite several emails and phone calls.
Tweed Shire Council refused to provide detailed figures regarding individual councillors and said “this information is not publicly available”.
Louis Miles contacted Maitland City Council and reported that after repeated requests, a representative from the council replied, “I have spoken to my superiors … due to the large amount of resources this request requires, we will have to pass on your offer to be included in this report.”
Louis said, “Some councils have been more helpful than others. Lane Cove and Manly were particularly keen to help and were happy to provide a little information early, but no more than is available in their annual reports.”
The Local Government and Shires Association of NSW, which represents the 152 local councils in the state, did not wish to comment on the investigation’s findings.
A minority of councils including Upper Hunter Shire Council and Tumut Shire Council voluntarily provided detailed breakdowns of expenses per councillor.
Ms Cotsis said councils are obligated “to be open and transparent about council finances, such as expenditure items and they should be disclosed in the same way as pecuniary interests are disclosed”.
“Trust and integrity are values that the public hold very high in a civil democratic society such as ours, public institutions and public officials have an obligation to be open and transparent.” she said.
The Newsroom is seeking comment from NSW Local Government Minister Don Page.
GIPA formal requests have been sent off to all 152 councils who have 20 working days from the receipt of the application to process the requests. – Candice Cokinas and The Newsroom‘s Statewatch Team