In a recent NewcastleHerald report [Greens See Red, 26/11], Newcastle lord mayor Nuatali Nelmes asserted that Newcastle council's "Open and Transparent Governance Strategy" was enacted in response to an open government reform agreement she reached with The Greens before she was first elected lord mayor in 2014.
However, a comparison of the council strategy and the Greens-Labor agreement (both publicly available) demonstrates they have little in common.
Adopted in 2017, the council document mostly comprises accounts of the council's current practices and slabs of text directly extracted from various Acts and codes stating the council's legal obligations in relation to community engagement, staff and councillor conduct, and public right-to-know laws.
To give it its due, it does contain one specific commitment from the ten point Greens-Labor agreement: to introduce publicly available diaries for the lord mayor and senior staff.
This has been implemented, and is a genuine reform.
Likewise, the council could credibly claim that it has reformed its committee structure, in accordance with another point in the 2014 agreement.
Beyond that, the council strategy document pretty much comes down to an underwhelming commitment to business as usual and basic legal compliance.
Nothing in it reflects any of the other eight commitments in the 2014 agreement: no commitment to make councillor workshops open; to reform the Code of Meeting Practice; to establish a network of community-based committees for residents in local communities; to create an internal council ombudsman; to allow community members and groups to address council meetings; to hold fortnightly council meetings; to consult with residents before removing significant local assets (including trees); or to improve communication with the community to increase community participation in council matters.
Some of these points in the 2014 agreement not only remain ignored and unimplemented, but have been directly opposed by Labor councillors, including the lord mayor.
On at least three occasions (in 2016, 2017 and 2018) Greens councillors proposed reforms based directly on the 2014 agreement, two of which were voted down by the elected council, including the lord mayor and other Labor councillors.
The other was withdrawn due to obvious opposition.
In some cases the council has fallen well short of the standards its own strategy sets.
For example, the strategy states that "All Ordinary Council meetings as well as the Development Applications Committee, Public Voice Committee and Briefing Committee meetings are open to the public unless required to be closed in accordance with the Act [my emphasis]".
If implemented as written, this would mean that no confidential council meeting would ever be held, because nothing in the Local Government Act requires such meetings to be closed.
The Act identifies the grounds on which a council may close some parts of a meeting, but this is never mandatory, and the use of closed meetings is always entirely at a council's discretion.
So entrenched is the culture of secrecy in many councils that this often comes as a genuine surprise to council staff and councillors.
In Newcastle, contrary to the council's strategy commitment, almost every council meeting chooses to consider some matters behind closed doors.
The council almost certainly never intended this strategy commitment to have the meaning it does, but this is itself testimony to the lack of care it applied to the document.
Similarly, the strategy's commitment to public disclosure of information under the Government Information (Public Access) Act [GIPA] also contains sloppy wording that, if taken as written, asserts a standard that the council has clearly not met and almost certainly never intended to meet in relation to its disclosure of public interest information.
A council that refuses to disclose information that is so clearly in the public interest (as with the Herald's recent requests about the relocation of the council administration), and that charges so exorbitantly for disclosure requests, cannot credibly claim to be operating at the "highest level of transparency and accountability", as its own strategy claims.
While these disclosure decisions are made by the council administration, it is within the power of an elected council that cared sufficiently about open government to adopt a policy to ensure such things don't happen.
For all the rhetoric asserting a commitment to open and transparent governance, the record shows that major commitments have been broken and that very little real progress has been made toward open government reform under the current Labor council's watch, and local democracy in Newcastle is suffering as a result.