PLEASE EXPLAIN: Council questioned over vested interests

THE NSW Information Commissioner has issued a 'please explain' to Clarence Valley Council after its decision to stop pecuniary interest declarations being displayed online.

The commissioner recently issued a revised guideline to local councils on the disclosure of information, which includes the disclosure of pecuniary and other interests as required under the Government Information (Public Access) Act 2009 (GIPA Act) on websites.

Following the decision by council to contravene the guideline, the Information and Privacy Commission released a statement that outlined its intention to seek clarification and reiterate the obligations under the guideline.

"The resolutions by councils as they seek to deviate from clear requirements under the GIPA Act and to justify noncompliance for privacy reasons will be something I consider carefully," Information Commissioner, Elizabeth Tydd said.

"Declarations of business and pecuniary interests are a demonstrably effective tool in preventing corruption and promoting integrity."

Ms Tydd said there were "strong factors" in favour of disclosure in the local government sector where decisions "impact the everyday lives of people".

"Those factors must be balanced against factors against disclosure, including privacy.

"However, declarations of business interests will not necessarily disclose any information impacting personal privacy."

Clarence Valley Council was not the only council to be named, with Gosford City Council and the Mid-North Coast Council also publicly stating their "intention to adopt practices that appear to offend the requirements of the GIPA Act and Guideline 1."

"The Information Commissioner will consider the responses from councils in taking any further regulatory action."

At Tuesday's meeting, several councillors including Jason Kingsley said they were still ensuring disclosures were available to view at council by appointment but listing them online was a risk to privacy.

"I for one don't want the world to have open access to my personal details and I care about the privacy and safety of my fellow councillors as I do my fellow councillors."

However, Ms Tydd said having information online enabled ready access and facilitated searches which could "enable trends or specific patterns of behaviour to be identified and acted upon if those behaviours warrant further investigation or other regulatory action."

"It also enables other oversight agencies to monitor practices which may indicate more systemic corruption," she said.

The commission said the intention of disclosures was to further "openness, transparency and accountability in local government" and minimise the risk of fraud and corruption.

"Local government conducts consultation and provides information and services using websites," the statement read.

"The GIPA Act recognises this dominant communication channel by requiring that the disclosures are available to citizens on council websites.

"This approach provides an accessible and effective way of ensuring that citizens can hold their elected officials to account."

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