Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass: “Evidence of poor practice across councils large and small, urban and rural.” Photo: Damian WhiteCouncil meetings are being held in secret in order to hide the “embarrassing” behaviour of councillors, a detailed investigation into local government transparency has revealed.
A 184-page report by Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass found many failings by the state’s councils to serve the public interest when making decisions to close meetings.
The investigation recommended that all council meetings be recorded, mandatory councillor training be introduced and that several changes be made to the Local Government Act to force councils to be more transparent.
“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,” Ms Glass said.
One of the many concerns raised in the investigation was that councils were inappropriately closing meetings to the public to avoid embarrassment or reputation damage to the council itself.
In June this year, Frankston City Council convened a meeting to discuss comments made by councillors on social media. The mayor and councillors later told the ombudsman the meeting was closed to the public because they believed it would cause negative media attention.
“You have to ask yourself, in the public interest, what does this serve?” one councillor said.
“If it’s going to be a bloody, messy procedure, if it’s going to be surgery and there is going to be a bit of blood all over the joint, why do you invite everyone in to see that and witness it?”
The council later conceded the decision to close the meeting was “not in full compliance” with local government law.
Ms Glass said that closing a council meeting to avoid embarrassment put the interests of council ahead of the interests of the community.
“Ultimately, the public has a right to see how councils are operating and making decisions,” she said.
“Where the source of embarrassment is councillor behaviour, voters have a legitimate interest in seeing these behaviours and their impact on council business, to inform their decision making at the next election.”
Only 16 of Victoria’s 79 councils make audio or video recordings of their meetings readily available to the public.
One of the justifications for this is that councillors could make defamatory comments during the meetings, exposing the council to legal action.
For example, Cardinia Shire Council in Melbourne’s south east used to webcast its meetings but stopped because it did not have defamation insurance (it now releases audio of council meetings via a podcast).
The Local Government Act requires that councils record the reason for closing a meeting to the public in the minutes of the meeting, however few council provide detailed explanations.
Melbourne City Council will hold five of its 11 items in its upcoming December meeting in secret. One of the reasons listed on the agenda for the confidentiality requirement is “other confidential matter”.
As part of its nine-month investigation, the ombudsman also received reports that councillors had voted on items that they had a personal interest in, or had bullied those who disagreed with their views.
Ms Glass recommended that a mandatory training program be developed for all Victorian councillors, despite some chief executives questioning if it would make any difference to councillors’ grasp of the requirements of their role.
“We deliver them whatever training they need. But … training doesn’t turn them into decent human beings that care about their community,” one chief executive said.
Other recommendations from the ombudsman include a “public interest test” requirement for closing meetings and the development of a code of conduct for all Victorian councillors.
Local Government Minister Natalie Hutchins said the Victorian government was considering the recommended changes to the Local Government Act “but can already indicate that we are supportive of many of them”.
“I also call on our 79 councils to look at how they can take the recommendations into account now,” she said.
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