Above: New Town Council CEO Robert Jennings (centre) with Acting Director Finance Edmund Wlodarczyk and Cr Jimmy Cocking (right): Secret business dealt with “in confidential” is coming out of the too hard basket.
By ERWIN CHLANDA
New Town Council CEO Robert Jennings is grasping with both hands the nettle of decisions being made in secret meetings, the controversial practice moved into the spotlight again during dealings about the proposed national Aboriginal art gallery.
As most of the discussions about the gallery have been held behind closed doors the public is unclear what the positions are of councillors they voted for, and on this issue in particular the position of the Mayor.
Mr Jennings says council has given him the mandate to “bring the project alive” and he’s now focussed on forming a multilateral partnership.
Is that a process that’s going to happen in open council?
“I am going to try to make it open, as determined by the Local Government Act,” says Mr Jennings.
NEWS: The public would see which councillor takes what position.
JENNINGS: I would imagine so. I am still shaping that up. At this stage it looks like it’s possible to be open, given that the Local Government Act confidentiality sections are not being triggered. I prefer it to be in the open. There is nothing yet that I’m putting together that would need to be in confidence. I’m planning further meetings with NT Government and Elected Members.
Mr Jennings says the elected members are not against these matters being in the open “but you would need to speak to them directly”.
NEWS: What is the time line?
JENNINGS: As a whole the project has suffered a lot of setbacks. I’m trying to revive something that’s had a really hard life journey.
NEWS: Are the negotiations with the traditional owners progressing?
JENNINGS (at right): At this stage there is a multilateral team proposed by Council which we think will work, and there will be Aboriginal representation suggested on that. However, it is an NT Government project and they are the ones to drive the whole project. We would be – hopefully – at the table saying which things are important to the people of Alice Springs.
Asked about a persistent rumour that the council is having secret meetings about the gallery with land owners in the CBD, Mr Jennings says: “I haven’t had that conversation but I’ve spoken to the Chamber of Commerce, for instance, and they have said they are keen on having the gallery here.”
He says the Chamber gave no specific location for it, a position that is “very consistent” around town.
“I would not necessarily say [the gallery issues] would need to be in confidence based on the Act’s requirements. From my point of view reports should be open when there is not a confidential requirement of the Act.”
NEWS: Where does the council want the gallery to be?
JENNINGS: What the councillors have done so far was to identify where they don’t want it: They don’t want Anzac Oval touched and the civic centre is not for sale .
NEWS: Are they in favour of using the land where the former Anzac High School is now being demolished?
JENNINGS: I am not across this issue enough to make a comment. My my job is to bring them some options to which they can definitively say yes or no.
The council’s current “in confidential” practice is governed by draconian measures that some councillors say can land them in gaol.
“The Local Government Act talks about a fine and it also talks about imprisonment,” says Mr Jennings.
The CEO is mostly the person who makes that declaration under guidance from the Act. The present council seems to have applied going “in confidential” as a default setting for anything remotely complicated.
“During my period here it has been based on the Act’s requirements,” says Mr Jennings.
Typically the public is kept in the dark about what is on the agenda for the secret meetings: The decisions to move matters “into confidential” are not made in an open meeting. It is not transparent which councillors are for or against moving something into confidential.
The discussion “in confidential” is secret.
Sometimes the decision is “taken out of confidential” but the public has been denied the opportunity of witnessing the debate, is denied the knowledge of who said what and how the vote went.
Asked if the agenda should be transparent to the public, Mr Jennings says: “Let me say, it would be essential practice for that to happen when the Act’s confidential provisions are not triggered.”
Can councillors prevent (by majority vote) a matter being moved “into confidential”?
“I researched this and there is nothing that I can find in the Act on this matter, either way.”
It has drawn much criticism that councillors are not permitted to talk to their constituents about matters discussed “in confidential” – at the pain of incarceration.
It’s a no-brainer that information about tenders need to remain confidential until they are closed. Private HR issues or reviews of individual rates, are legitimate reasons for confidential treatment, says Mr Jennings.
But critics say the constantly touted “commercial in confidence” is doubtful: When council is dealing with large amounts of public money the public has a right to know all about it.
If commercial partners don’t like that, they can of course bow out: It has been argued that being transparent to the ratepayers should be a condition doing business with them.
Under the Local Government Act, the public must be excluded while business is being considered that is classified as confidential by the Local Government Regulations.
“The CEO can use these classifications to determine what information – agenda items – must be allocated to confidential,” says Mr Jennings.
The News has been told there have been many disputes between councillors about classifications applied to items to be moved into or out of confidential.
The Regulations, very much open to interpretation, say the following information is classified as confidential:–
• Information about the employment of a particular individual as a member of the staff or possible member of the staff of the council that could, if publicly disclosed, cause prejudice to the individual.
• Information about the personal circumstances of a resident or ratepayer.
• Information that would, if publicly disclosed, be likely to cause commercial prejudice to, or confer an unfair commercial advantage on, any person; or prejudice the maintenance or administration of the law; or prejudice the security of the council, its members or staff; or prejudice the interests of the council or some other person.
• Information subject to an obligation of confidentiality at law, or in equity.
• Information provided to the council on condition that it be kept confidential.
The last point is easily avoided: In the interest of public transparency, the council could simply decline to accept information the provider declares as confidential.
The Act says: “A member must respect the confidentiality of information obtained in confidence in the member’s official capacity” and “the CEO must suppress from publicly available material information classified under the Regulations as confidential”.
The Act also says: “A staff member must not disclose confidential information obtained in the course of the staff member’s work except as may be required for the staff member’s official duties”.