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City Council set to oppose new transparency push

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Adelaide City Council’s administration has recommended its councillors oppose proposed changes to the Local Government Act that place tightened restrictions on when council meetings can be classified as commercial-in-confidence.

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Under draft amendments to the Act, councils would no longer be able to exclude the public from meetings where it is determined disclosure of information could be “reasonably expected” to prejudice or confer a commercial advantage on a person with whom the council is conducting business.

Councils would instead be allowed to discuss items in confidence if they believe there would be an impact on the future supply of information, or if they determine items would be “on balance” contrary to public interest.

But the Adelaide City Council’s administration says the proposed changes have the potential to undermine council’s procurement processes and value for ratepayers.

In a draft response to the Local Government Association, to be discussed by councillors at tonight’s committee meeting, council administration says the amendments would put people or organisations dealing with council at a commercial disadvantage by allowing disclosure of information to a third party.

“Commercial partners may decide not to disclose commercially sensitive information to council as [the] amendment would omit protections for proponents lodging unique proposals/unsolicited bids to Council,” the draft response says.

“[The amendment] could prejudice council’s commercial negotiations and negatively implicate public interest in commercial negotiations.

“[The amendment has the] potential to undermine council procurement and value for ratepayers, as [it] could require Council to ‘signal’ anticipated costs of projects before they are put to tender.”

The council locked the public out of discussions at 110 meetings in 2018/17 – the highest number of confidential sessions held by a council in South Australia that year.

North ward councillor Phil Martin said he offered “qualified support” to the council’s draft response, but he said there was a need for “tougher criteria” to determine when the council could discuss items in confidence.

“In the last term of council I can remember some really questionable proposals being discussed by council in confidence, which, in my view, had no critical basis,” he said.

“For this term of council you can count the number of meetings on one hand and yet there have been numerous items discussed to the exclusion of the public.

“I am aware of several whopper secrets that are before council at this time and which, in my view, have been determined commercial in confidence simply because they may lead to bad publicity.”

Martin said while he was “a strong proponent for more open and transparent business in local government”, he agreed that there were occasions when commercial matters needed to be discussed in secret.

“There is a case, particularly where people or organisations doing business with council may need to share unique details that could lead to a competitor getting hold of important information,” he said.

“I think criteria is key to this issue, not the principle of commercial in confidence.”

But area councillor Anne Moran described the amendments as “inexplicable” and “heavy-handed”, arguing the council had “pretty much got it right” when it came to ensuring it held a reasonable number of meetings in confidence.

“I don’t think we have a real problem, even though our numbers are up,” she said.

“I can’t understand what the State Government is saying – when it comes to commercial items, that is the one that needs to be in confidence.

“Having to disclose commercial information would really tie our hands behind our backs.”

Moran said she agreed with Martin’s view that some items were discussed in secret “to avoid council being embarrassed”, but she said the current laws were adequate.

First-time councillor Alexander Hyde said he was surprised by the number of confidential sessions held by the council.

He said there was a need to have some council discussions in confidence, arguing the city council’s role was “unique”.

“There is a need to have some council discussions in confidence, particularly where we have significant commercial partnerships involved,” he said.

“I won’t be supportive of any blunt legislative reforms that could jeopardise the commercial partnerships we have currently, or seek to have in the future.”

Fellow first-timer Arman Abrahimzadeh said he also sided with council administration’s view, adding he had no immediate qualms with the number of items discussed by council in confidence.

“I’m all for transparency but at the end of the day, every government – whether that’s local, state or federal – needs to have those commercial discussions behind the scenes,” he said.

“I would put the question to the State Government – are they prepared to have their cabinet meetings in front of the media and the public?”

The proposed amendments to the Local Government Act, introduced by Labor MLC Claire Scriven in October last year, are yet to receive support from the State Government, which says it will reserve judgement until it has received feedback from local councils.

In a statement to InDaily, Local Government Minister Stephan Knoll said he supported open and transparent government “at all levels”.

“Ratepayers in South Australia want to see accountability when it comes to those making decisions for them and we need to make sure this happens,” he said.

But the city council’s services director, Steve Mathewson, said the council already adopted measures to ensure open and transparent governance.

“Administration continues to work on ways to promote transparency of council decision-making and to minimise the number of matters discussed and held in confidence,” he said.

“As you can appreciate for various reasons, such as operating commercial businesses, entering into commercial arrangements, or legal matters, these quite reasonable needs to be considered confidentially.”

Mathewson added the council currently undertakes annual reviews of confidentiality orders in accordance with the current Local Government Act.

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