Ratepayers have a right to know how every dollar of their money is spent, so opined the Newcastle Herald last Saturday.
The reality is that often the information the Herald requests from governments relate to incomplete projects or contracts with third parties who don't wish for their commercial rates to be known to their competitors.
Despite what the Herald may claim, City of Newcastle is arguably the most transparent local government in the region, publishing a monthly financial report that provides a detailed summary of its performance against the adopted budget including staff wages, the capital works program, councillor expenses, and short and long term investments. It is also the only council to have supported an open and transparent governance policy that makes clear that more rather than less information should be in the public realm, where reasonable. It is also the only local government to publish the diaries of its chief executive and lord mayor. The same transparent approach cannot be said of the Newcastle Herald.
Five weeks ago the City of Newcastle purchased at a cost of $15,000, four pages of the Herald, including its front page. This was done to ensure that a detailed report on the costs of the four projects associated with 12 Stewart Avenue was publicly known. The first available date the Herald could make these four pages available was Saturday 5 December, and so a contract was entered into on 23 October.
Despite what the Herald may claim, City of Newcastle is arguably the most transparent local government in the region
This commitment to placing the costs of each of the four projects on the front page of the Newcastle Herald, was not acknowledged by the Herald anywhere in its five pages of reporting on 21 November.
The Herald was also informed in writing on 19 November that final costs for all four projects were being prepared with the support of key contractors and could be provided to the Herald within the week.
This includes the total costs of moving 450 staff from three very outdated buildings to a single premise in the city's new CBD which also includes a new library, a new local emergency operation centre and a new council chamber.
Herald readers should have been told that the cost of each project has already been estimated, along with the full cost of the 25-year lease of the building. Instead not a word was reported on the published estimated construction costs of the new digital library ($2.8 million), the new local emergency operations centre ($2.07 million), and the building fit out for staff and council chamber ($8.3 million). Nor did the Herald report that more than $2 million was provided to the project from a bequest that specified the use of the money on a new library. Perhaps what the Herald needed was a calculator, not a freedom of information application.
The Herald has written a series of articles over the past two years about the cost of the building fit out which are more speculation than fact, in the process leaving 32 uncorrected errors on the public record.
For example, the Herald reported on its front page that City of Newcastle was spending $120,000 on a temporary kitchen for its workers at 12 Stewart Avenue. This was wrong. The Herald wrote this story without putting the claim to City of Newcastle for confirmation. The fake story remains on its website despite the Herald privately admitting its error. Uncorrected Herald errors are not just limited to reporting on 12 Stewart Avenue. Last year, again on its front page, the Herald wrote that City of Newcastle workers were going to receive 26 long weekends a year. Again, it was wrong. And again, the Herald didn't bother to check with the City of Newcastle.
Last month the Herald reported that City of Newcastle had cut its maintenance bill by $100 million. Splashed on the front page, and totally wrong. Three weeks on and the Herald's editor has committed only to speak with the reporter who wrote the story when he returns from leave.
The Herald's selective application of the public's right to know goes further. Three times during the past year it has provided the opportunity to a City of Newcastle councillor to criticise the lease of 12 Stewart Avenue, both in terms of the value of the lease as well as its apparent secrecy. Three times the Herald failed to tell its readers that the councillor not only voted in favour of the lease but also voted that it should be commercial in confidence.
The Herald has a long tradition of not divulging its sources, even when information has been illegally provided. It cites the need to protect third parties as its reasoning for doing so. It's a shame that the Herald can't admit that this same rationale sometimes applies to government, especially when it is seeking commercially sensitive information.
Jeremy Bath is chief executive of City of Newcastle council.