Decision ‘made before vote’, say residents

Polly Walters and a group of residents protesting the closure of the Black Hill Pool. PICTURE: ADAM TRAFFORD

Polly Walters and a group of residents protesting the closure of the Black Hill Pool. PICTURE: ADAM TRAFFORD

UPDATE JUNE 11: Pool to reopen.

RESIDENTS claim a series of emails show the City of Ballarat had predetermined a decision to decommission the Black Hill Pool prior to a council vote. 

Councillor email casts doubt on girl’s plea

Email exchanges obtained by The Courier through a Freedom of Information request also found the council promptly removed items from the pool the morning after council voted to close the facility. 

More than 1100 email exchanges between councillors, staff and officers between January 2013 and October 2014 regarding the Black Hill Pool were released.

INTERACTIVE GRAPHIC: KARA IRVING

Black Hill Progress Association members believe an email exchange sent one month before the council voted revealed plans to close the pool.

On July 28, 2014, the council’s manager of accounting services sent an email asking if someone would manage the decommissioning of the Black Hill Pool.

“Happy with that. Will you manage the decommissioning of Black Hill?” the email read.

BHPA member Leigh Cassidy said language used in the email sug-

gested the council had already made a decision about the fate of the pool.

“By the nature of that question, (the pool future) has been predetermined,” he said. 

Association president Stuart McKee and member Polly Walters agreed with Mr Cassidy.

The emails also revealed that the council started removing infrastructure from the Black Hill Pool on August 28, the morning after the council voted to decommission the facility.

“By the nature of that question, (the pool future) has been predetermined - Leigh Cassidy- Black Hill resident

Ms Walters said the council acted to remove items to ensure the motion to decommission the pool could not be rescinded.

“I don’t think they were being efficient. It was predetermined,” she said.

City of Ballarat chief executive Anthony Schinck said infrastructure was removed to prevent the theft of equipment. He said the email proposing the decommissioning of the pool was within the council officer’s duties.

“Officers had to provide that to councillors as part of a process,” he said. 

Mr Schinck said council officers provided information to councillors about the pool at weekly councillor assembly meetings. 

BHPA also questioned why the condition report for the Black Hill Pool was not provided under Freedom of Information laws. Only the condition reports for the pool’s kiosk and change rooms were provided.

Mr Schinck said the document should exist within council’s Integrated Asset Renewal System.

The City of Ballarat said it would search for the document, but did not respond to The Courier’s phone calls or emails on Friday before deadline.

City of Ballarat chief executive Anthony Schinck

City of Ballarat chief executive Anthony Schinck

CEO holds back on full access

THE City of Ballarat has refused to disclose hundreds of secret email exchanges about the Black Hill Pool because some would divulge councillor opinions. 

Council chief executive Anthony Schinck said some of the 580 withheld documents requested by The Courier under Freedom of Information laws contained councillor opinion of the “Save the Black Hill Pool” Facebook page. 

Mr Schinck initially said he needed each of the nine elected councillors’ permission to release the information.

Council later said it would not be releasing any further email exchanges in relation to the pool. 

The exemption of documents follows the Black Hill Progress Association’s persistent lobbying for council to reopen the community pool. 

A majority of City of Ballarat councillors voted on August 27 last year to close the Black Hill Pool because of low patronage.

Last November, The Courier lodged a Freedom of Information request to access all emails sent between City of Ballarat councillors, council officers and staff, mentioning the phrase “Black Hill Pool” between January 1, 2013, and October 31, 2014. 

“I would question whether the commercial in-confidence (exemption) is being exploited to simply cover up information,” - Jonathan Halls, Ballarat Residents and Ratepayers Association president

The City of Ballarat identified 1105 pages as being relevant to the request and provided access to those documents.

About 580 pages discovered in the search were exempted under Section 33, 30, 34 (1) and 38A of the Freedom of Information Act. 

Section 30 exempts the release of documents that disclose matter in the nature of opinion, advice or recommendation prepared by an officer or member of council.

It also exempts documents that would be contrary to the public interest. 

Ballarat Residents and Ratepayers Association president Jonathan Halls said residents had the right to know the opinion of their elected councillors. 

Mr Halls said the public would question why the documents were exempted.

“When internal documents are refused, then the public is entitled to ask why,” he said. 

Documents relating to the commercial or financial information of a business were also refused. 

Mr Halls said it was easy for council to play the commercial in-confidence card.

“I would question whether the commercial in-confidence (exemption) is being exploited to simply cover up information,” he said. “In general the public are concerned by the lack of transparency.” 

Mr Schinck said the email exchanges were not relevant to the Ballarat Draft Aquatic Strategy and therefore not relevant to the initial request.

“I believe the act holds true and the documents don’t add any value to the public interest,” he said. 

Mr Schinck denied the council was hiding information from the public. 

kara.irving@fairfaxmedia.com.au