The NSW Information Commissioner has demanded a ‘please explain’ from three councils that are refusing to comply with new requirements for councillors and relevant staff to publicly disclose their financial and business interests.
Under revised guidelines released in September, details of properties, shareholdings, debts and business interests must be made available to the public on council websites. Recalcitrant councils could find themselves having to explain themselves in court, the Information and Privacy Commission warns.
The requirement has proved unpopular among the state’s local councils, who carried a motion objecting to it at their annual conference in October.
As reported by Government News, the motion called on the Office of Local Government and the Information and Privacy Commission to reverse the disclosure requirement, citing concerns for the privacy and safety of councillors and staff.
But Information Commissioner Elizbeth Tydd says the requirement will increase transparency and openness in local government and help identify and manage conflicts of interest, as well as minimising the risk of fraud and corruption. It also reflects the Model Code of Conduct for Councils and the GIPA Act, she says.
“Local councils must have regard to the guidelines,” Ms Tydd said.
She has now written to Gosford City Council (now part of Central Coast Council), Mid North Coast Council and Clarence Valley Council seeking further information and restating their legislative obligations to disclose, after they publicly stated they would not comply with the requirements.
These are strong factors in favour of disclosure particularly in the local government sector where decisions impact the everyday lives of people. Those factors must be balanced against factors against disclosure including privacy.
If they fail to come up with a satisfactory explanation Ms Tydd has the power to launch a formal inquiry into whether an offence has been committed.
She can also take the matter to the Supreme court to compel councils to comply.
Ms Tydd said the declaration of business and pecuniary interests was a demonstrably effective tool in preventing corruption and promoting integrity.
“These are strong factors in favour of disclosure particularly in the local government sector where decisions impact the everyday lives of people,” she said. “Those factors must be balanced against factors against disclosure including privacy.”
She noted it was possible for some of the information to be redacted if councils demonstrated “an overrding public interest” against disclosure.
Kathryn Bell from MidCoast Council, who moved the dissenting motion in October, said “in the scheme of things” she supported any decision by councils to take a stand and refuse to publish private information which could expose individuals to malicious acts and identity theft.
“Once that personal information is up there it’s up there forever,” she told Government News. “It’s not about hiding anything, we’re all under a code of conduct where we’re required to step up and declare any conflict of interest. I would think there are enough checks and balances in place.”
Cr Bell also said it was unfair that similar rules didn’t apply to state government.
Ms Tydd said said she would consider the responses from the three Councils in taking any further regulatory action.
Comment has also been sought from Central Coast and Clarence Valley.
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