FOR a lord mayor who pledged to "return openness and transparency to local government", City of Newcastle's repeated refusals for more than a year to reveal how much public money has been spent on its new Stewart Avenue headquarters seems remarkably closed.
Running for lord mayor in the 2014 by-election that was triggered by an Independent Commission Against Corruption probe, Labor's Nuatali Nelmes said she wanted to restore "trust and faith in civic leadership".
"If elected lord mayor I commit to working cooperatively with the elected council and the community, to continue the momentum for change and return openness and transparency to local government in Newcastle," she said.
So what has changed?
For more than a year, City of Newcastle has faced accusations that it is being secretive about how it is spending millions of dollars of public money on its new rented administration premises.
While much of this has been discounted as political and community opposition spin, the reality is much of it is linked directly to City of Newcastle's refusal to share the full details.
And while we know it's City of Newcastle staff who ultimately decides what information is released to the public, secrecy is a bad look for the Labor-run council.
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City of Newcastle's legal staff, headed by manager Emily Kolatchew, has claimed a host of reasons for refusing to release information following six freedom of information requests from the Newcastle Herald in eight months about the new headquarters.
The council's reasons include that it is simply preserving commercial confidentiality, is concerned about people's mental health, fears legal action and doesn't want to prejudice business interests.
After further questioning by the Newcastle Herald on Thursday, a City of Newcastle spokesman said that it planned to release the details within days. The project finished this week and total costs were being finalised, he said.
But I suspect there is more to the stonewalling.
The result of one appeal by the Newcastle Herald to NSW's information watchdog found council was not justified in relation to withholding most of the information. Two more appeals to the Information and Privacy Commission (IPC) NSW are pending.
In May, I wrote a similar column calling out council for refusing to release, again under freedom of information laws, a publicly funded consultant's report on erosion at Stockton beach.
Council eventually released the report, but only after an appeal to the IPC, that again found the decision to withhold information was not justified.
So why the secrecy?
I previously urged the council to consider the view of former Australian Labor prime minister, the late Bob Hawke, that transparency should be the first and last rule of government.
"Information about government operations is not, after all, some kind of favour to be bestowed by a benevolent government or to be extorted from a reluctant bureaucracy," he said in the first weeks of his leadership.
"It is, quite simply, a public right."
In June, another Labor heavyweight added her voice to calls for governments to be more open.
Speaking about a growing culture of obfuscation, NSW Labor leader Jodi McKay said freedom of information laws were "simply useless".
"I feel very strongly about this, people should be able to access information," she said.
There is no doubt that in many cases where governments deny access to information the real reason is to suppress politically damaging or embarrassing information - or as part of a power play between opposing political sides.
Sometimes refusal is based on little more than the convenience of those who have information.
Under the growing influence of government spindoctors, information is too often treated like a dangerous drug, meted out in controlled doses in an effort to contain or control public debate.
This is not for the people, it serves the interests of a select few.
The reality here is that if City of Newcastle continues to stonewall - regardless of its motivation and regardless of the issue - it will face more secrecy accusations.
Secrecy does nothing but create distrust and suspicion.
The principle behind the Newcastle Herald's freedom of information requests is simple: if you're paying for it, you should know about it.
And ratepayers are definitely paying for it.
Know more? Donna.firstname.lastname@example.org
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