Photo by Mitch Duncan.
Smaller councils appear to be more transparent than larger ones – an investigation by The Newsroom has found. This is despite the fact they generally have fewer staff and less funding than metropolitan councils.
Our original investigation began in May 2012 when the Statewatch team asked all 152 councils in NSW for a breakdown of the travel and entertainment spending of its respective councillors.
The Statewatch team found it extremely difficult to elicit an acknowledgement of the request, unless it was a generic automated reply that the request was being “actioned”.
Out of the few responses we received, the most helpful came from councils classified as rural or regional rural. In NSW, 77 councils are classified as rural and 32 as regional rural. According to the Local Government Act 1993 NSW, mayor and councillor fees are dependent on a council’s classification. A mayor of a metropolitan council is paid more than one from a rural council.
Smaller councils generally have less funding and fewer staff to cope with requests for information, though this didn’t prevent them from being some of the most responsive councils in the state.
“Most councils (particularly rural) have limited resources to be able to do their normal functions and be able to research large numbers of requests for different information,” said Steve Pryor, senior staff member at Upper Hunter Shire Council.
Another staff member from a regional rural council, who preferred to remain anonymous, told The Newsroom, “The administration requirements of councils continue to increase and admin staff numbers continue to decrease.”
Staff members of small councils find themselves taking on multiple roles. “We don’t have a separate media unit so it becomes part of the functions of the senior managers who may be tied up on other projects or out of the office attending meetings in regional centres,” said one general manager from a rural council.
David Smith, senior staff member from Greater Hume Shire Council agreed, “Larger councils have dedicated teams for GIPA applications and the like.” Despite their lack of a records or information department, Greater Hume was one of the councils willing to respond to our enquiries.
A staff member from another rural council said their small size was an advantage, rather than a disadvantage, to releasing information. “We are just lucky that because we are a small council, with only seven councillors and one senior staff member, we know who has attended what,” they said.
All council staff members interviewed for this article agreed transparency in local government was extremely important. The response we received from a spokesman for NSW Local Government Minister Don Page also reflected this view, but the Minister declined to be interviewed. His department emailed The Statewatch team the guidelines and regulations but offered no more information. The guidelines can easily be found on the Division of Local Government’s website.
An independent review of local government is currently underway, with a second discussion paper to be released next month. The first discussion paper recognises that “a considerable number of councils are struggling with the impacts of change and to meet the legitimate needs and expectations of their communities, as well as playing their part in the wider system of government.”
The reasons given for their struggle are very similar to those suggested by council staff. “In some cases this is due to declining populations and limited funding. Difficulty attracting and retaining skilled staff and councillors is also an issue.”
The discussion paper recognises the fact that growing populations cause as many difficulties as those declining. “In other cases, councils’ resources are being stretched to the limits due to rapid growth,” the paper said.
A population boom could be a reason for the lack of response from the majority of NSW’s metropolitan councils. But these councils deal with large numbers of ratepayers daily and should have the resources to respond to the Statewatch team’s enquiries.
– by Candice Cokinas, Rebecca Smith and The Newsroom’s Statewatch team
*David Smith is of no relation to Rebecca Smith