Ian Petersen
Ian Petersen Patrick Woods

Council secrecy 'built in' and 'anti-democratic'

GYMPIE Regional Council has secretive from the start and secrecy is built into its processes from the ground up, according to veteran ex-councillor Ian Petersen, who was elected to both the former Cooloola Shire and Gympie Region councils.

"There is secrecy where the public is not told what is going on and secrecy where even councillors are not informed,” he said.

"At Cooloola Shire Council meetings we discussed virtually everything at general meetings, even contentious issues, which caused dramas at the time, but at least the community knew what was happening.

"Admittedly we had more meetings and they lasted a lot longer, virtually all day.”

But it was worth it, he said.

"Every councillor got to have their say, on behalf of constituents, so the community had a say and they knew how their councillors performed.

"That changed with the new council and, more pertinently, with the new CEO,” he said.

"With the arrival of the new regime, the number of meetings was slashed and an inordinant number of matters were not brought to council meetings.

"There used to be nine meetings a month open to the public. I'm not sure how many now.

"Not only is the community kept in the dark, but councillors are too, often getting their information via the media after the decision has already been made and presented as a fait accompli.

"That completely subverts the principles of representative democracy.

"Our system has two people making decisiions and councillors not involved.

"Under the Local Government Act, the CEO is responsible for staff matters but the council (made up of the councillors) is responsible for the structure of the council.

"The first restructure that happened was brought to us as a fait accompli and that was clearly in breach of guidelines under the Local Government Act.

"The CEO came to us with a completely revised structure, with new directorships, and that led to the departure of a lot of dedicated and highly competent senior staff.

"Anything to do with formal financial matters would be discussed by the council, because according to the Act, if there was any financial mistake made, councillors are personally liable.

"Then there are all the (staff) confidentiality agreements, which included councillors not being told.

"But such an agreement is not between staff members and the CEO, it is between staff members and the council, which is made up of councillors.”

Without information on staff terminations and payouts, councillors were virtually signing a blank cheque.

But some of the secrecy resulted from state government changes, he said.

"The Local Government Act was amended by (ex-Premier) Campbell Newman and expanded the power of the mayor and CEO.

"This could be explained by the life experience of Campbell Newman, who was a mayor and Local Government Minister at the time, David Crisafulli, who was a CEO.

"The main thing that has to happen to put the public back in charge is to get councillors back in control of councils, more fully informing them, because councillors are responsible for policies.

"Councillors are the elected representatives of the community. Unlike bureaucrats, they are responsible to the community so must represent the community or face the consequences when the community has its say every four years at the ballot box.

"Bureaucrats can make bad decisions with immunity. The Local Government Act is quite clear. Councillors make the policy decisions, bureaucrats implement those policies.

"That is just not happening under the current regime.

I thoroughly enjoyed my time in council up to amalgamations.

"We had our fights and arguments, but it worked and everyone had a say.

"The committee system (as opposed to things being decided in secret, or "in committee,” which is a different use of the word altogether) was far more open.

"Committees would meet and recommendations would be made to the next week's general meeting.

"Thos recommendations would be reported in The Gympie Times and and quite often we would get feedback and could amend it at the general meeting - and this quite often led to a better outcome.

"The committee meetings were open to the public, although some things, as required by law, must be "in committee” of secret,” he said.

Gympie Times

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