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December 8, 2021

Former mayor critical of access to Council information

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Senior Council staff are defending their handling of a request for information relating to the Byron bypass project, after being accused of making up the process as they go.

A freedom of information request from John Lazarus on behalf of the Byron Environment Centre (BEC), and former mayor and NSW MLC Jan Barham was refined after staff replied that to execute, it would cost over $20,000 back in October.

A freedom of information request is known as a GIPA, which stands for the Government Information (Public Access) Act 2009.

The GIPA from Lazarus and Barham originally sought ‘copies of all documents held by Byron Shire Council, including but not limited to letters, emails, briefing notes, file notes, and agendas of meetings, minutes of meetings, maps and diagrams dated between 1 July 2014 and 1 November 2017.’

The Echo asked senior staff if the claims were correct, and that despite funds being accepted for the GIPA request, staff were unwilling to accept the request as it was from co-applicants.

The Echo asked, ‘How is this not redefining the processes?’

‘Why are Council staff making it difficult for the public to be informed of its operation?’

Council’s legal services Ralph James replied, ‘The original GIPA application, to which Ms Barham was co-signatory, was extremely broad. 

New application, say senior staff

‘In discussion with Mr Lazarus, the terms were revised and narrowed. This then turned it into a new application and Mr Lazarus alone signed the form and paid for it. 

‘As he was the only signatory to the application Council responded to him’.

Yet Ms Barham maintains that when the revised scope was accepted by staff, she was included in the correspondence.

‘There was no new [GIPA] application and the co-applicants didn’t change’.

She added this decision ‘just defies good governance and commonsense.’

Senior Council staff told Lazarus on October 22 via email, ‘The revised cost to provide this information will be $4,722.50.

‘This application satisfies the criteria of being a special interest to the public.

‘As such, a 50 per cent discount on the fee is available. The total cost is thus reduced, to be $2,361.25.

‘Please note the amount payable to commence the retrieval is still $2,361.25 but there would be no final payment required’.

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  1. Let us take the actual words:
    ‘In discussion with Mr Lazarus, the terms were revised and narrowed.”
    The terms were revised and that revision was done with Mr Lazarus’s cooperation.
    So nothing has changed. It was edited and condensed which was in line with the word “narrowed”.
    So just how is it that it was then a new application? For it to be a new application some meaning has to change to make it different in its meaning from the original.
    It does not say that in that sentence.

  2. Why do they want it? This is going to be hundreds and thousands of documents. What are they going to do with it all? Nobody can possibly have the time to read 3+ years worth of council staff emails, let alone the rest. And I bet they print it all out. What a waste of paper!
    A completely ridiculous request and a waste of council staff time.

      • The Application Request and the documents provision was all digital by email, except after taking payment and advising that there would be no further cost, they then said that there is more copy rite docs that can be viewed and copies additionally paid for, despite Meeting Agenda copy rite plans being published on Councils web!!

      • Dear Arabella and Benrizio, it should not be hundreds and thousands of documents, but it is a lot, nearly 100MB of info, all provided digitally. The purpose is to try and uncover if any vital information was overlooked in the bypass assessment process. Without council providing answers to questions presented to them by email, it’s the only way to find out the detail, or so it seems. Also the council has not provided an index, as other agencies do, so it has been made more difficult to assess.
        But, I can assure you that I will read through all the documents, well perhaps not read, I’m experienced at skimming and know what to look for. I’m two thirds through and know already they have not met the scope of our narrowed request. There is nothing ridiculous about seeking information to try and explain a decision made by our professional and elected council that appears to have been done without consideration of all the evidence. We are using our right to gain access to council’s information and are long term conservationists and residents who believe we have a responsibility to protect our precious natural world.

    • The Echo only laid out the bare bones. The original Application’s stated parameter was “for documents relating to vegetation mapping conducted for the Byron Bay Bypass” What we were quoted $20,000 for was largely irrelevant such as whole 150 page reports with perhaps a paragraph on veg mapping , and the cost was with the council warning that their overblown response was so big that they could lawfully reject the Application, but we did narrow the search, which Council then said was a new application with a new timeframe that would see the delivery after the Federal Submission period, and that if we now diddnt want to proceed then they would keep the $2,330 anyway. Then when they sent the docs , a) they didnt send them to Jan Barham (couldnt flick on the 5 Emails with Atatchments!!) and stated she would have to pay for a new Application to get them, and b) that there were further copy rite docs that we could come and view and pay for the copies. It was an example of obfuscation from day 1 – their agenda is elsewhere than providing the relevant info requested, ie the Buttler St Caravan Park has just been sold allegedly for $M40, as the start of the commercialisation of Butler st (with highway lighting and underground electricity and services all now in place

  3. I’m confused! Freedom of information means just that doesn’t it?
    It means keeping good records that are available to the public on request. So I ask the question, when did freedom of information mean only if someone could pay for it?

    Thanks everyone for trying to look after our home. Really grateful!

  4. In GB, we pay just £40 for all information requested.
    Seems to me that your Council are deliberately throwing obstacles to restrict and block information.
    With you witnessing the full effects of the climate emergency, a reassessment of priorities is urgently required.
    The Council needs to rethink its strategy being mindful of the apocalyptic future it seems to be moving towards.


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