Council’s transparency bid blocked amid privacy fears
THE state’s information commissioner has rejected a bid by Ipswich City Council to bypass privacy laws and publish the names of former councillors alongside their expenses.
It is a blow for Ipswich Mayor Teresa Harding, who is wanting to expose more detailed information about how ratepayer money was spent under previous administrations.
Cr Harding’s first order of business after being elected last year was to get the ball rolling to establish the landmark Transparency and Integrity Hub so residents could have direct access to past and present financial data.
It went live on June 1 but privacy issues stopped names of former councillors being published on the online platform in order to provide context for expenses and how money was spent by council-controlled entities.
Ipswich City Council submitted an application to the Queensland Office of the Information Commissioner in July to waive its compliance with the information privacy principles for the publication of historical data under the Information Privacy Act 2009.
The council wanted to publish the names of council employees, former company directors of council-controlled entities and former and current councillors in line with expenses incurred between July 1 2010 and July 1 2020.
This would include accommodation, airfares, Qantas club memberships, meals, wages, superannuation and membership expenses.
The council argued the publication of this personal information was in the public interest and some of this had already been published in previously publicly available annual reports.
All current councillors have signed a waiver to post their expenses to the hub on a monthly basis.
Veteran councillors Paul Tully and Sheila Ireland, who were part of the council sacked in 2018, provided consent for their personal information to be included in the hub from the start of the current term in April last year.
Seven former councillors expressly refused their consent to publication of their personal information and four former counsellors did not provide their consent.
In regards to council-controlled entities, one former councillor and director has expressly refused consent and four former councillors/directors did not provide their consent.
Five former directors expressly refused to provide their consent and two former directors did not provide their consent.
“I am not satisfied that the public interest in council’s compliance with the privacy principles is outweighed by the public interest in waiving or modifying council’s compliance with the privacy principles in the particular circumstances of this case,” Information Commissioner Rachael Rangihaeata said in her decision.
“I accept there is a general public interest in disclosing information that enhances council’s transparency and accountability, ensures effective oversight of public funds and informs the community of council’s operations.
“Council must be accountable and transparent in its expenditure of public funds.
“I am satisfied that the volume of information in the public domain regarding council’s past behaviour concerning misuse of council funds and assets, including independent oversight and scrutiny by a range of bodies including the courts and the (Crime and Corruption Commission), discharges the above public interest factors to a significant extent.
“I consider that issues regarding council’s past behaviour have been well ventilated publicly.
“I also find that the utility of the hub in aiding transparency and accountability of council’s expenditure of public funds, would not be reduced in any material way by the application of appropriate techniques to de-identify the historical personal information.
“Deidentification of datasets containing personal information can be a useful tool that allows agencies to maximise the information they publish.
“It is also important to note that while the hub offers the community the opportunity to view, understand and interact with council data, if members of the community cannot access personal information as a component of an existing open dataset because it is not appropriate to publish it in this way, they are still able to seek to understand the data in other ways.
“For example, they can approach council with queries who may be able to provide broader context that satisfies their needs, make a formal application for access under the (Right to Information or Information Privacy acts) and the specific information sought will be carefully considered, or other arrangements may be made depending on the circumstances, for example for research purposes.”
Cr Harding said the decision was “beyond belief”.
“It is clearly in the public interest to publish greater detail of the expenses incurred by councillors and the Local Government Act and regulations legally require us to do so,” she said.
“The public expect and deserve more transparency than ever and it’s our responsibility to build back the trust eroded by the former dismissed council.
“This new council holds itself to the highest governance and accountability standards and we have fought hard for this, for ultimate benefit of all communities across Queensland as well as the Ipswich community.
“I have written to the Minister for Local Government Steven Miles to express my concerns about this loophole.
“The information privacy principles do not provide an exception for local government to use and disclose the transparent dealings of its public officers and this falls dramatically short of community expectations.
“We established the hub to meet public expectations.
“The people of Ipswich are entitled to access open data on the current and previous council’s expenditure.
“Council will continue to lead the way on publishing real time financial data through the hub and I will continue to press upon government for legislative reform of this area, to overcome any conflict of laws, and to reinforce a state and national commitment to open government.”
Cr Harding said the council will continue to work with the Information Commissioner to seek advice on the publication of this specified data to the hub.
According to the hub, councillors spent $234,000 on communication costs,$214,000 on car costs, $12,600 on hospitality and $8800 on ‘refreshments’ during the 2015-16 financial year.
More than $21,000 was paid out to councillors as fringes benefit tax during the same year.
During the 2016-17 financial year, councillors spent $137,000 on travel and accommodation, $28,700 on conferences and deputations, $22,000 for travel allowance and $13,500 for ‘other services’.
Read more stories by Lachlan McIvor here.