Council fails audit on open access information requirements

THE Information and Privacy Commission has released a damning report of Clarence Valley Council's compliance with the open access requirements of the Government Information (Public Access) Act 2009.

The audit into policies, procedures, and details of complaints and inquiries about the disclosure of interests as well as the council website found that "despite the extensive regulatory engagement undertaken by the IPC in advance of this audit, the practices adopted by CVC demonstrated noncompliance or inadequate compliance with the requirements of the GIPA Act".

The IPC report states that a "fundamental threat to the right to access open access information" was found during the audit with a failure to properly apply a public interest test of the GIPA Act on councillor's public interest disclosures.

"In particular there was no evidence provided during the course of this audit that decisions to establish an overriding public interest against disclosure applied the principles required in accordance with section 15 of the GIPA Act," the report found.

"The evidence provided … supports a finding that redactions made in accordance with section 6(5) of the GIPA Act reflected the outcome of a tick box approach to a claim of an overriding

public interest against disclosure and that any such claim would result in the redaction of information absent the application of the public interest test as required under the GIPA Act," the audit found.

"Of utmost concern is that the draft processes containing the tick box approach absent any evidence of the requirement to conduct the public interest test appear to have been developed by CVC following regulatory engagement and guidance regarding the requirements of the GIPA Act.

"The findings also reflect a pressing need to adopt a culture of compliance. Leadership and commitment by leaders and those in positions of power is instrumental in achieving cultural change."

Council's general manager Ashley Lindsay said the audit has provided council with constructive feedback on their shortcomings on their website and processes around public interest declarations.

"Council obviously attracted the attention of the IPC when our disclosures went before council and council resolved not to put them on our website," he said.

"I think the investigation and review has provided council will some constructive feedback on the shortcomings of our website and processes around the disclosure of interests and making them available on the website, which we have done but the process and location of them was questioned by the IPC.

"We are about to upgrade our website to what we would describe as a more contemporary interactive website which should make it easier to access declaration documents.

"I think it was a constructive report, I acknowledge that there were a number of concerns by the IPC and we plan to work with them so we can address those concerns."

The audit was launched after a November 2019 council meeting where it was resolved not to comply with the IPC's Information Access Guideline 1 - For Local Councils on the disclosure of information (returns disclosing the interest of councillors and designated persons) and open access requirements.

"The IPC identified publicly available resolutions and media representations by the CVC relevant to the deliberate noncompliance with these provisions and a motion to rescind this decision declared lost at a council meeting on December 17 2019," the report states.

"As at August 2020, the IPC had not been advised by CVC of any commitment to rescind the motion to adopt non-compliant practices. CVC's noncompliance offends both the GIPA Act and the requirements of the Model Code. Accordingly, on January 29 2020, the Information Commissioner referred this noncompliance to the OLG.

"In this context, the IPC identified risks to the openness, transparency and accountability of the CVC. It also identified risks present in the identification and management of potential or perceived conflicts of interest that might arise in the decision making of the CVC.

"A demonstrated pro-compliance commitment by management to support transparency practices is integral to a robust compliance environment and essential to maintaining and advancing a system of responsible and representative democratic government that is open, accountable, fair and effective."

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