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Achieving transparency isn’t easy

It seemed like a reasonable request when Cr Karen Toms tabled a notice of motion at the September Clarence Valley Council (CVC) meeting, seeking “a detailed report of council’s advertising expenditure of $477,000 for 2018 and $438,000 for 2019”, but it proved to be not so simple.

Once the process of asking questions of senior staff, several points of order called by Cr Andrew Baker and consideration of whether or not the motion was legal were dealt with, Cr Lysaught offered a way out of the confusion, foreshadowing a motion that CVC “incorporate the advertising … breakup by Service and Sub-Service … into future budget reports”.

Cr Toms subsequently withdrew her motion.

After a five-minute break to consider the legality of Cr Lysaught’s motion, acting mayor, Cr Jason Kingsley, ruled the motion in order.

Cr Baker attempted to amend the motion to read, “Receive to the November Council meeting a report on the costs benefits and commercial in confidence consequences of public reporting of future budget reports, broken up into Service and Sub-Service, to be funded from the General Fund,” however, Cr Kingsley ruled it out of order.

Answering a question from Cr Toms, CVC’s general manager, Ashley Lindsay, told councillors: “Yes, we can identify the sub [category] and service but we can’t drill down easily into the system without looking at the invoice itself.

“[We] cannot rely on staff to put that detail in [the database spreadsheet].”

Corporate and Governance director Laura Black told councillors that reviewing “all of the invoices … [for] different types of advertising” would amount to “a few weeks’ solid work”.

Staff’s comment in the report to council stated: “This information is not retained against the financial ledger and therefore not attainable by reporting from the system.

“The 2017/2018 invoices are hardcopy and stored offsite and the 2018/2019 invoices are electronic following changed practice.”

As the mover of the motion, Cr Lysaught spoke first and said: “For a place that has a turnover of $150m, the advertising budget that comes to us for approval is incredibly small.

“When you look at other businesses that are far smaller than this place, we seem to be spending a lot of time on an issue that I personally don’t think it needs it.

“…I see it more as an operational issue rather than a full council issue, but this will give those who want it all the information they need – it’ll indicate where it is going, what proportion of it relates to compliance and what relates to promotional or marketing – and if you want to reduce it [advertising budget] you will get that opportunity at a budget time, I commend the motion.”

Speaking against the motion, Cr Baker said to councillors: “Our role is to set the budget and have the budget … adherence reported to us.

“If you are concerned about particular areas of probity then we have an audit committee we can write to and say we are concerned about it.

“…We really have to look at whether we should be diving down into this part of the business because if we do … we will need to know how much we spend on tyres for track machines [etcetera] … and on it goes.

“…Once we give the budget to the general manager that should be it.

“I have grave concerns about the commercial in confidence type allocations where maybe [it will be] all too easy for competitors … or people who want to do business with council to delve into the [advertising] expenditure too far.

Cr Toms said: “That’s an interesting take … yes we are the governing body and what does the governing body do?

“They actually approve budgets.

“[However], every budget I’ve seen does not tell us what we are spending on advertising.”

She pointed out that things like “subscriptions and memberships, consultancies, legal expenses” are easy to see, “but where is advertising”?

“The general manager says it is there … but it is not transparent,” she said.

“I think we need to be transparent, especially if we are talking about amounts up $400,000 and $500,000 every year.

“My motion never meant to cause grief or extra time for staff.

“But who knows what the budget is until the audit is done?

“Where does the amount come from? Who decides that amount? Who approves that amount?

“They’re the things that I don’t understand.”

She said there was no need for the “grave concerns” that Cr Baker spoke about.

“Is there any commercial in confidence there about our legal expenses?” she posed.

“[For] consultants that we spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on … it’s not a problem.

“I just want it to be open and transparent; the actual [budgeted] amount.”

Only councillor Baker voted against the Cr Lysaught’s motion; Cr Richie Williamson declared a significant non-pecuniary interest, due to his employment at a “commercial media company”, and left the meeting; the mayor, Jim Simmons, was absent.

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