Has Byron Shire Council improved with its transparency with regards to confidential motions?
Should councillors try and be as transparent as possible when dealing with assets that are publicly owned?
In last week’s meeting, all councillors didn’t bat an eyelid as they moved again into confidential session over two motions, one relating to land that Council owns in the highly valuable Belongil suburb (Item 9.5), and another that was just called a ‘boundary adjustment’ for another parcel of Belongil property.
No information was provided on the motion, so the public were left without any knowledge of what went on behind closed doors.
When delving into the reasons around the secrecy, Mayor Michael Lyon at first defended the secrecy as ‘entirely prudent and appropriate’, and, ‘We are trying to solve a building encroachment on Council-land issue and we wanted to ensure that all ideas could be discussed without fear of litigation’.
He said general reasons to close the doors on the public, ‘would be matters where legislation prohibits us doing so, for commercial in-confidence matters regarding contracts and tender selection, appointment of members to panels and committees and finally, matters that are likely to be able to leave us open to being sued’.
When pressed, he said, ‘The default position is that if something is of concern to staff, and raises an issue under the legislation, then they mark it as confidential’.
‘We have had the discussion quite a few times regarding whether to move away from this on a particular item, but it is rare that we disagree with staff’s assessment, though it has happened in the past.
‘I agree that the original motions, as proposed, should have been in the public agenda, and the background redacted if it contained problematic content, however, staff chose a different view, and they are responsible for production of the agenda’.
So, should councillors be more engaged with what is confidential, and take the lead, instead of mostly relying on staff with such matters?
Former Byron Mayor and NSW Upper House MP, Jan Barham, told The Echo, ‘In accordance with the Local Government Act 1993 and the NSW Office of Local Government advice, the onus is on councillors to determine if confidentiality is required and maintain open processes to keep the community informed’.
‘You should be able to read a council staff report and know what’s going on. This is our story, this is our land, it’s not theirs exclusively’.
Instead of holding confidential meetings in most cases, Ms Barham suggests redacting documents to maintain open governance.
‘With tenders and the like, names and tender amounts can be redacted. The same goes for the appointment of members to panels and committees. It’s important to provide a full picture of what Council does with all of its dealings. By informing the public, it builds trust’.