The Investigation into the transparency of local government decision making has been completed and the report publicly released.
I took the time to read through this report and found it very informative and interesting that it revealed some issues relating to Councils. Community members had reasonable concerns about transparency in their Councils and in fact there were many complaints made to the Ombudsman.
“This investigation arose from a single complaint about a decision made in a closed council meeting – a practice that we found to be widespread across Victoria. Some complaints resonate as a theme: local councils continue to account for some 25 per cent of jurisdictional complaints to my office – more than 3,400 last year. People complaining to my office about council decisions periodically refer to the decision being made “in secret” or “behind closed doors” as evidence to support their concerns. I tabled the report into the original complaint in June 2016, but this has been a far wider investigation, looking at the transparency of decision-making within local government in Victoria.” Source: Deborah Glass Ombudsman.
As part of the investigation 79 Victorian councils were surveyed and 12 were selected to be examined in detail.
The areas of focus were:
• the closure of council meetings and special committee meetings to the public
• the handling of confidential matters
• the nature and quality of audio and visual records of meetings and the public’s ability to access records
• the scope and exercise of delegated council functions/powers and administrative actions; and the reporting of these to council and the public
• the nature and content of information discussed in ‘assemblies of councillors’
Due to the findings, there were specific recommendations made in the report to be introduced or implemented. Here is a summary of some of the recommendations or suggestions:
• relating to the Local Government Act, a requirement for more detailed reasons in relation to the closure of meetings to be specified in the minutes and that embarrassment to, or potential adverse criticism of, council are not reasons to close a meeting to the public
• implement a mandatory ‘Code of Councillor Conduct’ training program
• conflict of interest requirements to extend to advisory committee members and to have an updated list of committees on a Council’s website
• ensure that agendas are made available to public five days before a council meeting
• public questions and answers to be recorded in minutes, through audio or audio-visual recording and publication, as well as posting recorded open meetings to council websites
Did you know about section 15 ‘Your right to freedom of expression’ under the Human Rights Charter?
“People are free to say what they think and want to say. They have the right to find, receive and share information and ideas. In general, this right might be limited to respect the rights and reputation of other people, or for the protection of public safety and order.” Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission
How does this right play a role in Council? As stated in the report:
“Councils also need to take care regarding restrictions on public question time. Unreasonable restrictions have the potential to be incompatible with not only the right to participate in public life, but the right to freedom of expression in section 15 of the Charter. For example, where councils require questions in writing prior to meetings, they should ensure there is appropriate assistance available to those who may have difficulty placing their question in writing. A number of councils mentioned they offered such assistance. Councils should also ensure that any restriction on the content of questions or submissions by members of the public at meetings which could be considered to limit their right to freedom of expression is appropriately balanced with any lawful restrictions reasonably necessary to respect the rights and reputation of other persons or national security, public order, public health or public morality.”
You will also find a summary of transparency in the report:
What does a transparent council look like?
Local government transparency a postcode lottery: Victorian Ombudsman
Comments are welcome!
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