Archive:  Ombudsman

Last Updated  23/12/16

 

 

 

NEW  Ombudsman's Report Into Transparency In Local Government Shines A Light Where The Light Hasn't Been Shining

(23/12/16 - SG)  Findings confirm the Macedon Ranges' community wasn't just whinging when it said the previous council lacked transparency and accountability.  The ball-biter recommendation is that all council meetings should be (at least) audio recorded - including confidential meetings... and briefings!   Ho, ho, ho, ho ho.    Red Alerts

The Ombudsman's office targetted 12 pilot councils for this report (not Macedon Ranges) and the result is a whopping 184 pages, but it's a good read.   The report looks at whether transparency is being achieved across a range of council areas - including meetings, delegated decision-making, confidential decisions, briefings, motions, and committees of council.

 

Conclusions are at page 138, Recommendations are at page 148, and "What a transparent council should look like" - a most delicious and enlightening read - is at page 150.

 

https://www.ombudsman.vic.gov.au/Publications/Parliamentary-Reports/Investigation-into-the-transparency-of-local-gover

 

MRRA Says:

 

What a Christmas gift!

 

So the 4% of us that the former Mayor (Hackett) said were wrong, weren't.  

 

The report makes recommendations including: (at a minimum) audio recording not only open council meetings but also closed 'confidential' sessions - and councillor brieifings;  not using en bloc motions;  reporting on delegated decision-making; making public the members and minutes of Council's Special and Advisory committees and enforcing conflict of interest requirements for these, and introducing a State-wide Councillor Code of Conduct. 

 

The Ombudsman concluded that recording of confidential council forums - when council closes the chamber to consider confidential items, and councillor briefing sessions - would engender a heightened awareness in participants of the need for transparency and accountability.  Although these recordings would not be available to the public, they would exist.  The Ombudsman's point is that the mere fact these meetings are recorded would deter unaccountable, untransparent and unofficial decision-making, particularly in council briefings, which are not supposed to be decision-making forums at all.  The Ombudsman disagrees with the change proposed to the Local Government Act to allow councils to run briefings as they see fit, saying "further deregulation will only increase the likelihood of substantive decisions being made in briefing sessions and merely being ratified in the chamber."   To date Macedon Ranges council has declined all community requests to record (audio, video or live stream) council meetings.   Both MRRA's written request in 2010, and a recent petition, both calling for recording/streaming of council meetings, went nowhere.

 

According to the Ombudsmanís report, the infamous en bloc motion approving multiple agenda items in a single motion lacks transparency:  transparent... councils... don't... use... it....   Macedon Ranges Shire has indulged in en bloc motions since 2010, where without prior notice, at times the bulk of meeting agenda items have been approved in a single en bloc motion, pointing to decisions repeatedly being made in confidential briefing sessions. The previous council may have seen it as a way of conveniently shortening the length of meetings, but this practice has been the subject of long and strong community complaint.

 

It was therefore disappointing, at last Wednesday's (21 December) council meeting, to hear the CEO's response to a question from the gallery asking if council and councillors were aware of the Ombudsman's report.  The CEO said that as Macedon Ranges Shire only determined 2.65% of its decisions in camera, while other Large Rural Shires average 10%, Macedon Ranges Shire operates transparently.  That response missed the Ombudsman's point about a range of practices that contribute to lack of transparency.  It would be interesting to know where Macedon Ranges' percentage goes if decisions made in briefings and approved en bloc were included...

 

The thought of public reporting of decisions made under officer delegation - what a sensible recommendation to improve transparency.  Macedon Ranges Shire could get the ball rolling, for example, with some reporting on decisions the CEO makes in exercising his hefty delegated authority to award contracts of up to $1 million without consulting council.  

 

Accountable and transparent local government - are we there yet?   With this Ombudsman's report, and some improvements mooted for the Local Government Act, and with a new council that seems to be pushing back on some of the unsavoury practices of the recent past (and hasn't used the en bloc motion in its first two council meetings), Macedon Ranges might, just might, be starting the long slow turn back towards the 'right track'.  To all who are trying to achieve that, more power to your elbow.