OSCAR had been very concerned about the number of confidential items in Council meetings and in particular the apparent overuse of these by the SCRC in the past.

We acknowledge, however, that there are good recent signs that this problem is being rectified in the case of the SCRC and hope this continues into the future. The unanimous support of councillors in the SCRC for a Review of the Classification and Management of Council Information at the January 2021 Ordinary Meeting is a welcome initiative and we will monitor, with interest, the outcome of this review.

The figures below document the number of confidential items in Noosa and Sunshine Coast meetings and do not take account of actions by either council to release confidential details and/or reports after the decision has been made – something OSCAR applauds.

Noosa Council now publishes a summary of all its confidential items which can be viewed on the Council’s website. This is an excellent initiative and also provides more detail on why an item was deemed to be considered in closed session and whether reports were made available post the decision.

 

Number of items

Noosa Council

Sunshine Coast Regional Council

This term – from April 2020 to August 2022

13 items 22 items

Same time period in previous term

13 items 160 items

April 2016 – March 2020 total
(Previous term of Council)

17 items 208 items

 

NOTES:

  • The source data for the 2020 to 2024 council terms will be updated half-yearly and will be available here.
  • The document we maintained that listed the confidential items for both councils and shows how we derived these summary figures for the 2016 to 2020 term of each council is available here.
  • We have never referred to our statistics as representing the number of secret meetings; rather it refers to the number of confidential items considered in Ordinary or Special Meetings.
  • We have always acknowledged that there are no actual decisions made in closed sessions; having said that, it is often difficult, if not impossible, to determine what the decision actually was and how councillors came to their decision given the information published in meeting minutes.

Relevant legislation (current)

The legislation that governs the use of closed sessions in council meetings is contained in Section 254J of the Local Government Regulations 2012.

254J Closed meetings

(1) A local government may resolve that all or part of a meeting of the local government be closed to the public.

(2) A committee of a local government may resolve that all or part of a meeting of the committee be closed to the public.

(3) However, a local government or a committee of a local government may make a resolution about a local government meeting under subsection (1) or (2) only if its councillors or members consider it necessary to close the meeting to discuss one or more of the following matters—

(a) the appointment, discipline or dismissal of the chief executive officer;
(b) industrial matters affecting employees;
(c) the local government’s budget;
(d) rating concessions;
(e) legal advice obtained by the local government or legal proceedings involving the local government including, for example, legal proceedings that may be taken by or against the local government;
(f) matters that may directly affect the health and safety of an individual or a group of individuals;
(g) negotiations relating to a commercial matter involving the local government for which a public discussion would be likely to prejudice the interests of the local government;
(h) negotiations relating to the taking of land by the local government under the Acquisition of Land Act 1967;
(i) a matter the local government is required to keep confidential under a law of, or formal arrangement with, the Commonwealth or a State.

(4) However, a local government or a committee of a local government must not resolve that a part of a local government meeting at which a decision mentioned in Sections 150ER (2), 150ES (3) or 150EU (2) of the Act will be considered, discussed, voted on or made be closed. [NB These provisions relate to councillor Conflict of Interest matters.]

(5) A resolution that a local government meeting be closed must—

(a) state the matter mentioned in subsection (3) that is to be discussed; and

(b) include an overview of what is to be discussed while the meeting is closed.

(6) A local government or a committee of a local government must not make a resolution (other than a procedural resolution) in a local government meeting, or a part of a local government meeting, that is closed.

OSCAR’s view

OSCAR believes this regulation is still too general and allows councils far too much latitude in terms of what they deem appropriate to be considered in closed sessions. The notion that councils may resolve to close a meeting to the public is too often interpreted incorrectly (but deliberately) as will resolve.

This results in a lack of transparency and places the interests of councils themselves and those of commercial organisations above the rightful interests of the community in general and ratepayers in particular.

The overuse of closed sessions also flies in the face of the principles of local government that are outlined at the start of the  Local Government Act 2009 —

(a)  transparent and effective processes, and decision-making in the public interest; and
(b)  sustainable development and management of assets and infrastructure, and delivery of effective services; and
(c)  democratic representation, social inclusion and meaningful community engagement; and
(d)  good governance of, and by, local government; and
(e)  ethical and legal behaviour of councillors and local government employees.

OSCAR will continue to advocate with our councils and with the State government in order to achieve further reform on this issue; we believe there is a need for a resetting of the balance between genuine situations where confidentiality may be appropriate and the legitimate rights of the community to know how their councils are acting on their behalf.

We believe overuse of closed sessions inevitable creates a “culture of secrecy” around key council activities and undermines the confidence of the community that the actions of councils are in fact in the best interests of the community they serve.