28 November 2012

Confidentiality Orders

This article appeared in The Advertiser this morning. I always write the topic to be discussed in my meeeting reports and the outcome if I feel it is still of interest when the Confiential order has been lifted.
How transparent should Council be?
SA councils too often hold closed meetings, says state's ombudsman
SA councils are hiding their meetings behind closed doors too often and regularly are in breach of the Local Government Act in doing so, an investigation by Ombudsman Richard Bingham has found.
An audit of meetings of 12 of the 68 councils across South Australia in the two years between 2009-2011 found 725 meetings were held in confidence, of a total of 8044.
The confidentiality rate of 9 per cent of all business items compares with 3 per cent the Ombudsman recommends as a maximum.
The audit examined 80 of the closed-house meetings in detail and found, in 40 cases, there was no defensible reason to exclude the public, and in 31 cases, there were arguable grounds but no real need to hold them in confidence. Only nine of the 80 cases had a clear reason to hold them in confidence.
Mr Bingham found many meetings were held out of view of the public gaze to avoid embarrassment or public pressure when discussing controversial local subjects.
His report, tabled in State Parliament today, also found numerous cases where there were procedural errors in declaring a meeting off-limits to the public, meaning the council had no legal authority to do so and was in breach of the Local Government Act.
"A lot of cases I put down to ignorance, rather than malice, but there were also some cases where they (councils) went into confidence when....dealing with issues that could be embarrassing for the council," Mr Bingham said.
"Some of the councils were very good and had in-confidence rate of less than three per cent, and I think it is entirely reasonable to aim for that three per cent mark.
"Transparency and sunlight are the remedy for this secrecy and I hope they act to improve their openness."
Mr Bingham recommended the Local Government Act be amended to specify that controversy, or sensitivity, over a matter in the community is not a reason for closing a meeting to the public.
He declined to name the most secretive council but has written to each council telling them how they fared in his report. Councils are free to publish his findings on their council, which Burnside Council so far has done.
Under the Local Government Act council meetings including committee meetings should be held in public except in "special circumstances."
"In many cases, information which should be made public is not," Mr Bingham said.
"Too often release of information is done in such a way as to restrict public access to released documents."
The report also found more than 40 per cent of the State's 68 councils failed to review their confidential meetings Code of Practice within 12 months of the 2010 council elections as required by the Act.
Councils in the audit were: Alexandrina, Barunga West, Burnside, Ceduna, Coober Pedy, Grant, Light, Mt Barker, Murray Bridge, Onkaparinga, Playford and West Torrens. 

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