NEWCASTLE lord mayor Nuatali Nelmes has been accused of reneging on a preference deal with her political allies, the Greens, designed to help her secure the top job in 2014 and keep less council information behind closed doors.
Former Greens councillors John Sutton and Therese Doyle took aim at the Cr Nelmes this week following revelations in the Newcastle Herald on the weekend that City of Newcastle had refused the Herald's requests for the full details about how much ratepayers' money had been spent on its new rented administration premises.
Current Greens councillor John Mackenzie said the information should be publicly available and he was at a loss to understand why City of Newcastle refused to hand it over.
"I don't know why the information has been blocked," Cr Mackenzie said. "More scrutiny is better than less scrutiny and I can't see the justification for not allowing it."
Cr Nelmes hit back on Wednesday, strenuously defending City of Newcastle's transparency and said the costs would be published in the coming days.
She said Newcastle was the only council in the Hunter with an 'Open and Transparent Governance Strategy', that was enacted from the commitments she made with the Greens prior to being elected lord mayor in 2014.
"I reject a modern re-interpretation of an agreement made six years ago, and that has subsequently been embedded in council policy," she said.
"As a result of the Open and Transparent Governance Strategy, City of Newcastle has vastly more information regarding all facets of our operations and decisions publicly available than most other councils or government organisations in the region.
"There was a time under former leadership and management that information was deliberately withheld from councillors and the community. This is no longer the case."
In the week leading up to the lord mayoral by-election in 2014, Labor and the Greens signed an '"open government reform package" designed to promote transparency and put more information in the public arena.
The ten-point preference-sharing deal, signed by lord mayoral candidates Cr Nelmes and Ms Doyle on the steps of City Hall, aimed to make the council more democratic, open, transparent and accountable.
It was developed in the wake of an ICAC probe that left the lord mayor's position vacant after Jeff McCloy resigned. Cr Nelmes, who won a landslide victory to take her first term as lord mayor, ran on a platform of returning "openness and transparency to local government in Newcastle".
Mr Sutton, who helped put the preference deal together, described City of Newcastle's responses to requests for information as "extremely disappointing".
He said the secrecy around the spending and the business case justifying the move to Newcastle West showed a lack of accountability to ratepayers.
"So much is at the discretion of administrators who are not particularly intent on giving out information," he said.
"Cr Nelmes put her name to that document and released it, but sadly it has not been lived up to."
The Newcastle Herald reported on the weekend that it had submitted six freedom of information requests seeking details about Stewart Avenue move, with limited success.
Only one of six requests lodged in the past eight months has resulted in council producing information that wasn't already publicly available, four were denied.
For the past two years City of Newcastle has refused to answer all questions about the full detail of the spend and refused to publicly release the business case, it has quoted from, to justify the move.
Councillors approved the shift to Stewart Avenue in 2017 based on the business case by real estate services firm CBRE that council said showed would benefit ratepayers by $13.1 million over 25 years and the fit-out would cost $7 million.
Council's legal staff argued releasing information requested under freedom of information laws, known as the Government Information Public Access (GIPA) Act in NSW, would compromise everything from commercial-in-confidence provisions to the mental health of people working on the project.
A council spokeswoman defended its decision not to release the full cost of the move until the project had been completed. Final costs were being calculated and would be released imminently, she said.
"City of Newcastle has publicly estimated the construction cost of the fit out of 12 Stewart Avenue and Council Chamber at $8.3 million, as well as its digital library at $2.8 million and local emergency operation centre at $2.07 million," she said.
"The full costs of the lease are also on the public record. The Herald's continuing narrative that costs associated with the projects are unknown is simply untrue."
Cr Nelmes said she was not involved in freedom of information request decisions and "almost all the costs and impacts are in the public domain" about the move.
She said council had given a "commitment that the small amount of information not yet in the public domain would be made public imminently once contracts and variations were finalised".
Mr Sutton, who was Newcastle's first Greens councillor, said the argument that council was waiting for the project to be finished before it told people how much it cost was "mystifying".
"It's hard to understand it in terms of the logic of disclosure," he said.
"They would have had to have a budget, they would have tracked it. Why wouldn't they say we budgeted this amount and at the moment it's this amount?
"The fact that the council thinks that it is a reason to withhold information, is not a reason to do so."
Ms Doyle said Cr Nelmes had "reneged" on the 2014 deal that she "stood up alongside me and signed in front of all of those people".
She said ratepayers had a right to expect "full transparency" when it came to the expenditure of public money and the "continual lack of disclosure" was wrong and "not a one-off".
Referencing residents' battle with council over information about the deal to bring the Supercars to Newcastle, Ms Doyle said it was a pattern of behaviour that needed to end.
"We gave preferences to Labor expecting there to be a commitment to the document," she said.
"There is too much secrecy surrounding the budget. They do not want the public to know what is being spent or what is going on."
University of Newcastle communication lecturer Paul Scott, of the School of Creative Industries, said in his experience with GIPA applications, council was more secretive than NSW Police.
"There appears to be a growing reluctance and reticence from council to provide information regarding its activities that involve ratepayer funds," Mr Scott, a Herald columnist, said.
"I've had more than six GIPA requests with NSW Police and the information has always been provided for just the application fee of $30.
"I have a GIPA in with council about the King Street car park, I have been asked to reduce the scope of the request and I would have to pay $720 for the information. It seems to me that council does not want people to know what is going on."
Mr Sutton said City of Newcastle did not have a good track record of releasing information.
"I think Greens supporters would be very disappointed because they put a lot of value in open government and accountability," he said.
In July, Information and Privacy Commission senior regulatory officer Kevin Cheng raised with council concerns about the lack of information publicly available about the new administration project.
"As the fit-out contract has a value of more than $5 million ... the agency's contracts register must include a copy of the contract," he said.
"Further, it does not appear the agency has provided in its contracts register any reason as to why the contract had not been included in the register, or any statement as to whether it intended that the contract will be included in the register at a later date."
It is still not available and council has declined to answer questions about the issue.
City of Newcastle's spokeswoman said all GIPA requests were decided by council staff on their merit against the requirements of the legislation.
"Nowhere in City of Newcastle's Open and Transparent Governance Strategy does it say that any request for information from the Newcastle Herald should be approved regardless of consequence," she said.
"It appears that the Newcastle Herald considers its need for a story to be of greater importance than that of the City's need for accuracy."
Cr Nelmes said council plans to spend $15,000 on taking out a four-page advertisement in the Herald in early December "to promote community awareness of the four projects at 12 Stewart Ave and the final costs for each project".
After council approved a number of improvements to the building, including a new council chamber believed to be worth $1 million, the spend has grown considerably since Mr Bath said in 2017 that the "one-off" cost would be $7 million.
City of Newcastle's spokeswoman defended delays on releasing the full costs.
"The Newcastle Herald has at no time indicated what public benefit exists from providing incomplete costs," she said.
"We are confident that ratepayers' expectation is that we provide an accurate, final cost which has always been our commitment and will shortly be provided."
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