The New South Wales Information Commissioner has reminded local councils of their obligation to publicly disclose their personal financial interests, with a new information access guideline.
It comes after several local councils announced plans to remove pecuniary interest registers from their websites.
Disclosing such interests is key to upholding openness, transparency and accountability in local government, according to Information Commissioner Elizabeth Tydd. She argues it also allows potential conflicts of interests to be identified and managed, and “minimises the risk of fraud and corruption”.
The Government Information (Public Access) Act 2009 (GIPA act) aims to keep elected government officials accountable by encouraging the “proactive public release of government information”, while giving the public an “enforceable right to access government information”. However, the act states information could be restricted if there is an “overriding public interest against disclosure”.
The Gosford City, Mid-North Coast, and Clarence Valley councils recently announced plans to adopt practices that could breach this legislation, Tydd notes.
In consultation with the state Privacy Commissioner, she has issued a revised guideline to local councils on the disclosure of information. It requires information to be published on council websites, including details about properties, shareholdings, and debts.
Business interests must also be declared by councillors and senior decision-makers, according to Tydd.
“Declarations of business and pecuniary interests are a demonstrably effective tool in preventing corruption and promoting integrity,” she says.
“These are strong factors in favour of disclosure particularly 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.”
“The resolutions by councils as they seek to deviate from clear requirements under the GIPA act and to justify non-compliance for privacy reasons will be something I consider carefully.”
However, the new guideline continues to allow councils to redact some information if there is an overriding public interest against disclosure, but this will be approached on a case by case basis.
The Information Commissioner will consider responses from the potentially offending three local councils before taking regulatory action.
Last month, Central Coast councillors and some of their counterparts in nearby regions decided they would not publish their pecuniary interest disclosure returns on the council website, citing their own “privacy reasons” as an overriding public interest against disclosure. They agreed the returns would be tabled, to be held solely by the chief executive officer.
“After weighing the public interest considerations, personal information in the returns would be an overriding factor against disclosure and would need to be redacted prior to being released on council’s website,” the council agenda notes.
“This redaction in effect would result in the returns being meaningless, as details of addresses of places of residence and other properties owned form part of the type of information which might be relied up to determine a pecuniary interest. If that information is removed from the return, the return has considerably less value … the unredacted returns will be available for view only inspection by application, as per council’s current practice. It should be noted that in the past council has experienced very few requests to view the returns.”