Tightening the tap on council leaks

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tapAnalysis – Carol Altmann

We heard it was coming and it has arrived – the clamping down of councillors being able to speak freely to the media and a whopping fine if they leak what a council considers confidential information.

Tomorrow night (July 4) the Warrnambool City Council will use a special meeting to vote on a new code of conduct that, among a raft of other things, demands that councillors tell the communications manager, Nick Higgins, if they talk to a journalist.

It also includes a provision to fine councillors $18,200.40 (!!) – or charge them with serious misconduct – if they leak confidential information to a journalist, or anybody else for that matter. This change is one that had been recommended for councils across Victoria under changes to the Local Government Act.

In another change under the Act, all councillors must sign the code of conduct if they wish to remain on council.

The changes to the Act make no secret, pardon the pun, that they are intended to improve accountability and “standards of behaviour” which is another way of saying that “rogue” councillors will be dragged further into line.

I am not in favour of councillors running amok, but this clamping down comes as more and more information is kept from the public, or carefully massaged by council media units before release, and will only make it even harder for journalists to tell you what is really going on.

In fact, at the time of writing, if you try and find the agenda for tomorrow night’s special meeting on the council’s website, it is not there. Nor is a copy of the draft Code of Conduct so that we can see what the councillors are being asked to consider.

More importantly, as we have already written, there has been a string of critical information that has been considered “confidential” by the council that surely should be in the public domain.

This includes:

…and on it goes.

bruce anson abc
The exact salary package of WCC chief executive Bruce Anson is one of the many items considered confidential. Image: ABC.

All of the stories we have written about these issues have relied on sources, leaks and Freedom of Information applications – the bread and butter of any good journalism, but also becoming the only way to find out even the most basic of information (eg. how much is council CEO Bruce Anson actually paid?)

You may recall that the internal panic about leaks from Warrnambool City Council came to a head after the leaking of documents to The Age about the expansion of  Midfield Meats and the political connections of boss Colin McKenna.

That saga led to an investigation and public shaming of three councillors that, locally, generated more heat than the vastly more important story about links between Mr McKenna and then Premier Denis Napthine.

It also led to this latest move to stop councillors from saying anything to journalists without the council’s media adviser knowing about it.

You have to ask – who is this policy designed to benefit?

Only those who want to keep you, the ratepayer, in the dark about the potentially controversial, embarrassing or debatable decisions that are made behind closed doors.

As a wise person once said: “news is what somebody, somewhere doesn’t want you to know. The rest is advertising”.

And I, for one, believe we need far more news.

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8 thoughts on “Tightening the tap on council leaks”

  1. Great to hear your voice of reason once again Carol. So much for transparency in government. What are they so afraid of? If they are doing what they are elected to do, why the need for secrecy? What a terrible way to run a council. Threatening a councillor that may have a differing opinion with a fine or worse is no way to ensure a fair outcome for any item on the agenda. Who will be brave enough to stay and work in such an environment? Only sycophants and yes men will remain and I suppose that’s the reasoning behind this whole absurd exercise.

  2. $18,200:00 sounds fair enough but spare them the 40 cents, surely.This smacks of an awkward combination of bullying those that wish to serve into silent submission and a high degree of silliness, all to protect us from what is, essentially, our business.

  3. I will be attending this special council meeting on Monday 4th July at 5.00pm, I also urge others to attend this open meeting.
    I believe the signing of this Code of Conduct could have been held over until after the October elections to enable the new councillors to have input into this document. To threaten councillors with large fines for freely speaking to the media denies them a democratic right to freedom of speech.
    I will be running in the next council elections and will be strongly advocating for an open and transparent council. After all it is ratepayers money they are spending.

  4. As this vote is to be taken on a recommendation only, my position is that it should be rejected.
    For heaven’s sake, any issue being considered which relies upon ratepayer funding to finance it, ought to be totally transparent.
    Knowledge may be power but secrecy reeks of totalitarianism. Punishment for divulging secrets is heading down a deep and dark road.

  5. Mayor Gaston, Councillors Ermacora and Askew voted yes. Councillors Hulin and Kelson voted no. This meeting was held before the open council meeting time of 5.45pm.
    Unfortunately I missed the debate.

  6. Warrnambool has a chance to change all of this in October. Vote wisely in our Council elections. Do not let this destructive power and control continue.
    This is a shining example of having, yet again, a Mayor that appears to have no interest in leading Warrnambool into a bright future. We need a real leader who acts on behalf of the people of Warrnambool, with no secrets to hide. (edited)

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