Local government transparency will again come into focus over the coming weeks as the Victorian government looks to push through some regulatory reforms and the sector votes on whether to voluntarily improve its disclosure regime.
Voluntary governance reform is a hard slog with the poorly paid part-time local politicians who run Australia’s councils.
As Crikey reported in June, the board of the Australian Local Government Association put the City of Melbourne’s good governance motion last out of 80 motions at its 2015 National General Assembly in Canberra.
And when it came to voting on the motion favouring disclosing senior executive contracts in the annual report, pre-approving interstate travel requests, disclosing councillor expense claims online and putting audio of council meetings alongside the online minutes, the voting delegates at ALGA smashed it with about 85% against.
The City of Melbourne has had a similar experience with transparency motions at the rural dominated Municipal Association of Victoria (MAV) state council meetings over the past three years.
But like the Duracell bunny we’re back for another try, approving this motion on Tuesday night for the MAV state council meeting on October 23:
That the MAV State Council:
1. Resolves to open this State Council and all future State Council meetings to registered members of the media and, to the extent practicable, interested members of the public.
2. Authorises management to record all future State Council meetings in full and make the audio publicly available on the MAV website.
3. Requests the MAV Board to distribute draft State Council motions to delegates without consolidation or amendment at least five weeks before State Council, thereby allowing member councils an opportunity to directly seek amendment before the final distribution of papers at least two weeks before State Council. Submitting Councils are entitled to amend existing motions up to three weeks before State Council.
4. Resolves to publish the names of councils which fail to attend State Council in the minutes of the meeting.
Typically, about 15-20 of the 79 MAV delegates don’t show up at State Council, but under this proposal they would be named and shamed. Alternatively, future no-shows would be able to listen to proceedings later online or read media reports if the indefensible media ban is lifted.
As usual, it will probably be defeated, but with a relatively new Labor government in Victoria that is talking the talk on governance reform, City of Melbourne is now pursuing other avenues to drive improved disclosure. On Tuesday night, this motion was also unanimously approved responding to the Victoria government’s once-in-a-decade tidy-up of various local government regulations, including the public registers, which councils must maintain.
1. That the Future Melbourne Committee:
1.1. Notes the draft Local Government (General) Regulations 2015 which have been released for public comment and requests officers to prepare a submission to the State Government reflecting the administration’s views on the proposals.
1.2. Broadly supports the proposed reduction in paper register requirements and requests officers include the following points in Council’s submission:
1.2.1 The local government sector should be encouraged to maximise the amount of useful data made public on council websites, including through an online version of the annual report.
1.2.2 The State should require other councils to follow some City of Melbourne examples of improved online disclosure, such as:
1.2.2a: Disclosure of senior executive contractual arrangements in the annual report;
1.2.2b: Regular online disclosure of Councillor expense claims.
1.2.2c: Disclosure of individual valuations for council owned land and buildings above a material threshold after they are professionally valued.
1.2.2d: Publication of an annual online lease register detailing occupancy and rental arrangements for external organisations accessing council owned land and buildings.
1.2.2e: Audio recordings of council meetings being made available online alongside the minutes.
1. 2.2f: Establishment and maintenance of an online register of conflict of interest declarations by councillors.
As you can hear in the last five minutes of the audio from Tuesday night’s meeting, City of Melbourne councillors, led by lord mayor Robert Doyle, have embraced the transparency push at the capital city council and are openly critical of the governance approach at the MAV, which was savaged by the Victorian Auditor-General earlier this year.
Victorian Local Government Minister Natalie Hutchins was supportive of Melbourne’s transparency approach when interviewed this week by a local journalist about the secretive approach taken by the government-appointed bureaucrats who are still running Brimbank City Council in Melbourne’s west, some six years after the council was sacked.
Rather than jaw-boning Brimbank over executive salary disclosure, she could just make it a regulation that all councils must reveal the contractual arrangements of their top five executives in the annual report.
If it’s good enough for public companies, why not councils?
*Stephen Mayne is chair of the Finance and Governance Committee at City of Melbourne and was not paid for this item.