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Councillors oppose uploading disclosures of interest

Information and Privacy commission says otherwise

Geoff Helisma|

After a circuitous and lengthy debate at the September 24 Clarence Valley Council (CVC) meeting, councillors unanimously voted against making their (and designated staff’s) annual disclosure of interests return available online.

The council’s policy of allowing public scrutiny in the presence of a CVC officer at the council’s Grafton office, however, was expanded to have the documents “available on request at Maclean council office by appointment only”.

Each year, councillors and designated CVC staff are required to fill out an annual return disclosing their interests: income, gifts received, contributions towards travel, interests and positions in corporations, and positions in trade unions or professional or business associations.

This year, for the first time, following the Office of Local Government’s implementation of a new ‘Model Code of Conduct’, councillors and staff are compelled to disclose if they “are a property developer or a close associate of a property developer”.

At state level, politicians’ declarations are available online in digitally unsearchable PDF documents, which run out to over 900 pages across two volumes.

At federal level, each politician’s individual PDF return is available to the public for scrutiny.

However, while senior staff at federal and state level are compelled to make declarations of interest, they are not available online.

Meanwhile, the Independent has since learnt that the NSW Government’s Information and Privacy Commission’s September Information Access Guideline 1 – For Local Councils on the disclosure of information (returns disclosing the interest of councillors and designated persons) states, in part: “The mandatory proactive release provisions of the GIPA Act and the GIPA Regulation apply to the disclosure of information contained in returns disclosing the interests of councillors and designated persons.

“The combined effect of the GIPA Act and the GIPA Regulation is that the information in the returns needs to be disclosed on the website of each local council, unless to do so would impose unreasonable costs on the council, or if the council determined there was an overriding public interest against disclosing the information.

“In order to decide whether there is an overriding public interest against disclosure, councils need to apply the public interest test, and weigh the public interest considerations in favour of and public interest considerations against disclosure.

“This Guideline recognises that disclosing the information in the returns furthers openness, transparency and accountability in local government.

“It also facilitates the identification and management of potential conflicts of interest that might arise where councillors and other staff participate in decisions from which they may derive, or be perceived to derive, personal or financial benefit.”

On Wednesday September 18, the Independent called CVC’s general manager, Ashley Lindsay, to tell him that an apparent clerical error had resulted in the uploading of the declarations to CVC’s website and that a senior staff member’s statutory declaration – to not disclose his residential address (an action available to all who fill out the declaration) – had not been acted upon.

Mr Lindsay has since confirmed that new forms have been issued to councillors and staff.

Whether or not they are uploaded onto CVC’s website will most likely be considered when the correct declarations are tabled at a future council meeting.

One councillor has told the Independent that they have sent an enquiry to the general manager and corporate and governance director Laura Black, asking if the “recent resolution [was] obsolete [after] considering” the new information.