[Source: Redlands2030.Net, 14 August 2018]
Risks of corruption in local councils were discussed recently in Redland City by Crime and Corruption (CCC) Chairman Alan MacSporran and Integrity Commissioner Nikola Stepanov.
Key points raised by Mr MacSporran and Dr Stepanov included:
- public officials must put the public interest above their private interest
- conflicts of interest will occur but need to be declared and dealt with
- friendships are the basis for a conflict of interest and can result in people’s behaviour being compromised
- misbehaviour happens regularly
- the culture of an organisation is fundamentally important and is significantly influenced “at the top”
- decision making and processes have to be “completely transparent”
- use of subsidiary companies avoids transparency
- “right to information” needs to be applied more (much more) in accordance with the intent of the legislation
An important aspect of Mr MacSporran’s presentation was his explanation about the responsibility of councillors (collectively and individually) to report misconduct.
It is not enough to assert: “I did nothing wrong”. Councillors must act proactively act on their suspicions or observations of poor practices. Further Councillors are required to ensure the Council itself has processes in place to ensure transparency and accountability.
Actions for the State Government
Fixing Queensland’s obstructive Right to Information laws is a matter which should be dealt with by the State Government.
In responding to a question at the Redlands Integrity and Accountability forum, CCC Chair Alan MacSporran agreed that the way Right to Information laws currently operate in Queensland reduces transparency and increases risk of corruption in councils and government agencies.
Redlands2030 has been put to considerable costs in contesting Redlands City Council’s decisions to obstruct the release of information. Sometimes the Council’s initial decisions have been overturned on appeal but a satisfactory outcome can take many many months to achieve.
The State Government should also act to stop councils from avoiding transparency through use of subsidiary companies (such as the Redland Investment Corporation) which are not subject to Right to Information laws and which can’t be investigated by the CCC.
The CCC has expressed its views on councils’ use of subsidiary companies in an investigative report released today, discussed below.
Local government culture and corruption risks
A CCC report Culture and corruption risks in local government based on investigations into Ipswich City Council was recently tabled in State parliament.
The CCC says its investigations into Ipswich City Council has shown “how an unhealthy culture and unsound practices, once established and never corrected, can derail the efficient operation of a council.”
The CCC urges all councillors, council employees and ratepayers to read its latest report, saying:
“Local governments have an enormous impact on the daily lives of all Queenslanders. Because of that, every council must ensure that they understand their obligations to ensure transparent processes, sustainable management of assets and infrastructure, and decision making in the public interest. Beyond that, councillors and employees must also be prepared to challenge and report any attitudes or behaviours that threaten to undermine those obligations. The example of Ipswich has shown the consequences of failing to do so.”
Specific recommendations in the report are:
That all councillors across Queensland ensure that they are sufficiently informed of their council’s policies and procedures, particularly in relation to financial controls and its compliance with these policies and procedures.
That the Department of Local Government Racing and Multicultural Affairs provide information and/or training to inform councillors of their rights and responsibilities as councillors, including in areas such as governance and financial literacy.
That a minimum set of standards for policies and procedures and monitoring compliance be established for areas identified as high risk for councils.
That the Department of Local Government Racing and Multicultural Affairs, the CCC, the Queensland Audit Office and any other relevant stakeholders form a working group to identify areas of high risk and develop a set of model policies and procedures for these risk areas.
That the Department of Local Government Racing and Multicultural Affairs:
- Examine the need for councils to continue to utilise controlled entities; and
- Review the beneficial enterprise provisions in the Local Government Act 2009 and City of Brisbane Act 2010 including whether further controls and regulation should be introduced to ensure that controlled entities do not expose the council to greater risks of corruption.
That councils’ controlled entities should be deemed to be units of public administration, bringing these entities within the oversight of the CCC and also subjecting them to the Right to Information Act 2009.
That the Local Government Advisory Group include a prohibition on the use of private email accounts when conducting official business in the councillors’ code of conduct.
That individual councils should also introduce a local law supported by appropriate policy and procedure which applies to councillors and employees to prohibit the use of private email accounts for the purpose of conducting official business.
Queensland Integrity Commissioner
The Queensland Integrity Commissioner is responsible for advising elected representatives and senior public sector officials about any ethics or integrity issue, including a conflict of interest issue.
The Commissioner also maintains the Queensland Register of Lobbyists.
Mayors and other local councillors have been able to access the Commissioner for advice since February 2018. This reform was implemented by Local Government Minister Stirling Hinchliffe in response to a recommendation by the Crime and Corruption Commission.
Crime and Corruption Commission
The Crime and Corruption Commission (CCC) investigates both crime and corruption in Queensland.
Anyone can report suspected corrupt conduct to the CCC.
You do not need proof, you just need sufficient reason to believe that the conduct has occurred.
Complaints can be reported through the CCC website.
Room for improvement at Redland City Council
Points raised at the recent forum point clearly to corruption risks at Redland City Council.
Redlands2030 has regularly discussed many of these matters and will continue to do so until the Council addresses these risks with significantly improved governance.
Redland City Council’s regular practice of having non-public meetings of the mayor and councillors to discuss agenda items prior to formal meetings lacks transparency.
Another way that Redland City Council regularly avoids transparency is delegating to the CEO decisions to award contracts.
Through this practice the Council was able to award a 12 year $107 million waste collection contract to J.J. Richards and Sons on 1 July 2017 without mayor Karen Williams having to declare that she had received a $10,000 donation from this firm a couple of weeks before the 2016 local government elections.
The Council’s decision in 2014 to establish a property development company (Redland Investment Corporation) was commercially unnecessary. Councils can buy and sell property in their own right and have been doing so for decades.
But as explained by CCC Chair Mr Alan MacSporran, transparency is reduced through use of such entities which he said seemed designed to avoid transparency.
Any councillors concerned for good governance in the Redlands should advocate for improved transparency by:
- Ending the practice of secret meetings
- Ensuring that all decisions about major contracts are made at formal (minuted) council meetings with any conflicts of interest appropriately declared
- Winding up the Redland Investment Corporation immediately
- Reviewing Council procedures and processes thoroughly and regularly to improve accountability and transparency
Councillors concerned about good governance should also be ensuring that the staff working for Redland City Council are not harassed or intimidated for doing or saying what they believe to be right. And staff should be regularly empowered and trained to identify and report suspicious and inappropriate conduct, including under the Public Interest Disclosure Act.