Local government transparency a postcode lottery: Victorian Ombudsman

Thursday 15 December 2016
Victorians should not be subjected to a ‘postcode lottery’ when it comes to local government transparency, says Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass.
Tabling the Investigation into the transparency of local government decision making, Ms Glass said transparency is a random matter across the state where some councils have embraced innovations such as live web-streaming council meetings, while others have moved to restrict public access. 
‘Overall, we found that councils were not engaging in widespread, deliberate, secretive behaviour. But there was evidence of poor practice across councils large and small, urban and rural. Transparency should not be a postcode lottery,” the Ombudsman said.
‘Why does transparency matter? Simply put, secrecy breeds suspicion. Decisions made behind closed doors, not published on council websites or otherwise exposed to the public gaze, make people suspicious about whether the decision was fair or, where money is involved, whether it is a good use of public funds.
‘While there are legitimate and sometimes unavoidable reasons why some matters must remain confidential, and the public interest in transparency must be balanced against other interests including the privacy of individuals, transparency has long been regarded as one of the best tools for combatting corruption and increasing public confidence in government,” said Ms Glass.
The investigation, which surveyed all 79 Victorian councils and selected 12 for detailed intensive focus, examined key areas of transparency including the closure of meetings, public access to meetings, agendas and minutes, councillor briefings, councillors taking decisions outside of formal council meetings and the delegation of powers.
The Victorian Ombudsman received 3,416 complaints about local councils in 2015-16, accounting for 24 per cent of complaints overall. Issues of concern raised included decisions appearing to be made “in secret” or “behind closed doors.

Ms Glass welcomed the current Victorian Government review of the Local Government Act.
‘I encourage that review to not only set a higher minimum standard for openness than exists at present, but to ensure consistent guidance on the many matters raised in this report. Victoria should be leading, not lagging, on best practice,’ Ms Glass said.
The investigation, which took evidence from council staff, CEOs, Mayors and councillors, also revealed a sometimes fraught and occasionally toxic  relationship between councillors and CEOs, which affected decision making.
The investigation recommended the development and implementation of a uniform Code of Councillor Conduct for all Victorian councils along with mandatory training for all Victorian councillors on the code.
It also recommended the Local Government Act review introduce requirements for the closing of meetings including a public interest test and the removal of the so-called ‘catchall’ provision.
Other recommendations include ensuring that the following areas are covered, as a minimum, in guidance for all councils:
  • agendas be made available to the public at least five days before a council meeting
  • reporting on the exercise of delegation
  • audio recording wherever practicable of both open and closed council meetings, and posting of recordings of open meetings on council websites
  • recording of public questions and answers at council meetings in minutes, or through audio or audio-visual recording and publication.

Report: Investigation into the transparency of local government decision making

Media contact: Rory Cahill Tel 03 9613 6235 | Mob 0409 936 235  rory.cahill@ombudsman.vic.gov.au
Further information: Tel 03 9613 6222 | Regional (landline) 1800 806 314 ombudvic@ombudsman.vic.gov.au | Follow @VicOmbudsman