Ballarat City Council made a greater share of its decisions behind closed doors in the past financial year than any other regional municipality, the latest figures show.
During that time, councillors made 22.44 per cent of all council decisions in camera - that is, without the public or media present - the annual report reveals. That is an increase from 16.38 per cent in 2017/18.
In an explanatory note, the council said that: "In November 2018, the meeting procedures changed to allow Councillors to pass multiple reports in one 'block' therefore only using one resolution."
HAVE YOUR SAY AT THE BOTTOM OF THIS PAGE
The annotation said there had been fewer resolutions made in camera but the new "block" affected the figures.
Ballarat City Council CEO Justine Linley confirmed to The Courier that 68 decisions were made in camera in 2018/19, including 28 contractual matters and 17 procedural motions. Ms Linley said the figure was affected in part as council did not have a contracts committee for much of the time.
A new contracts committee consisting of three councillors now decides on contracts valued between $250,000 and $1 million, meaning less decisions now go before a full meeting.
Ballarat Mayor Cr Ben Taylor said the contracts committee was working well, and their meetings included "very robust" discussions between councillors and council officers.
The latest figures on council decisions were included in the City of Ballarat's annual report. Data from the annual reports for the City of Greater Bendigo and the City of Greater Geelong show that Ballarat makes a far greater chunk of its decisions 'in camera' than both those councils.
Both those councils tracked similar levels of in camera decisions in 2018/19 with the Bendigo at 8.29 per cent and Geelong at 8.39 per cent. LaTrobe council was the only other regional municipality in Victoria that made more than a fifth of its decisions behind closed doors.
According to the state government, the overall trend of council decisions made in camera has declined. It cited the Know Your Council website, which was launched in 2015 and compares councils' performance data, as "the sort of scrutiny has led to a statewide reduction in decisions made in meetings closed to the public."
The rate of in camera decisions in Ballarat has increased from 12.85 per cent in 2016 to the current level. Only two metropolitan councils made a larger slice of their decisions behind closed doors: the City of Melbourne (23.5 per cent) and Frankston (28 per cent).
In December 2016, a Victoria Ombudsman report on council transparency said that some councils decided "almost all contractual matters in open meetings", but keep commercially sensitive material confidential. The report said the information subsequently released about contracts following closed sessions is also "highly variable".
READ THE 2016 OMBUDSMAN REPORT ON COUNCIL TRANSPARENCY
The City of Ballarat now outlines the decisions made, values and companies for all contracts between $250,000 and $1,000,000 in council minutes, including the name of the successful bidder.
The City of Greater Bendigo meanwhile only requires contracts over $1.65m to go to a council resolution, unless the CEO or directors deem it necessary while The City of Greater Geelong appoints a probity adviser for any contract worth more than $1m.
When are closed door decisions made?
Under the local government act, decisions can be made 'in camera' when they relate to the following:
- Personnel matters
- The personal hardship of any resident or ratepayer
- Industrial matters
- Contractual matters
- Proposed developments
- Legal advice
- Matters affecting the security of Council property
- Any other matter which the Council considers would prejudice the Council or any person
Most decisions taken in camera are either about contracts or personnel.
What decisions did Ballarat make behind closed doors?
In the past financial year, there was a total of 68 in camera decisions made by councillors. The CEO Justine Linley said that number was affected in part as Ballarat City Council did not have a contracts committee for a large part of the financial year (it was approved in October last year and began to meet early this year), Of those decision, 28 concerned contracts and 17 were procedural (ie the way council meetings are conducted).
Other in camera discussions were listed as: appointments to committees; Australia Day Award recipients, discussions related to tourism services, waste to energy/recycling updates (contractual), artwork (contractual), and land/property management (contractual).
Can contractual decisions be made in open council?
Yes. As the Victorian Ombudsman report from late 2016 indicates, councils have a wide variety of approaches to awarding tenders. Some councils do almost all their business in public. The City of Greater Dandenong, for example, considers major contracts in open council. Instead of specific prices, council officers award price points to each qualified tenderer, who are also named.