Inside the chamber of secrets

TENDERS ONLY: Wattle Range Council chief executive Ben Gower said council discussed matters in confidence most meetings to consider tenders, but was always thought out and balanced with the public interest.

By Raquel Mustillo

LIMESTONE Coast councils have discussed hundreds of items behind closed doors in the last financial year, with figures revealing staff and elected members met in private 210 times during 2019/20.

An investigation by The Border Watch has shown the region’s seven councils have collectively invoked confidentiality provisions more times in the 2019/20 period than in the previous five years.

State legislation allows councils to have secret debates for commercially sensitive reasons – which on balance would be contrary to the public interest – tenders, litigation and legal advice and to discuss issues involving the unreasonable disclosure of information concerning an individual’s personal affairs.

Councils are not permitted to exclude ratepayers because an item may cause embarrassment, adverse criticism or a loss of confidence if made public.

Last financial year, councils discussed 191 items in-camera, 141 in 2017/18, 179 in 2016/17 and 141 in 2015/16.

MOUNT GAMBIER CITY COUNCIL

MOUNT Gambier City Council entered into confidential discussions 56 times in 2019/20, with members discussing the $64m Community and Recreation Hub 15 times behind closed doors.

A review of City Council’s confidential items last financial year found the biggest number of closed door discussions in almost a decade, with councillors discussing privately discussing 90 items in 2010/11.

Councillors voted to retain 48 items in confidence last financial year.

City Council chief executive Barbara Cernovskis said the the high number of confidential discussions was to progress council’s largest ever community infrastructure project.

“Council have a number of confidential items that range from issues that are commercially sensitive, concerned with property management and other strategic matters,” she said.

The majority of items – 20 – were discussed in private as not to provide a commercial advantage on a person with whom council is conducting or proposing to conduct business with.

On November 19, 2019, the Regional Sport and Recreation Committee discussed seven items in confidence, including scope and specifications for the construction of the hub, summary of costing variations, operating model scenarios and the governance structure and financial delegations for the project.

A majority of the seven items were unable to be discussed publicly due to tenders and the risk of conferring a commercial advantage.

The hub was discussed two times behind closed doors in March 2020, with council requesting a private “verbal update – several matters” on March 3.

On March 17, the Regional Sport and Recreation Centre Committee met to discuss “confidentiality, activities, and the Community and Recreation Hub” in private and voted to remain documents in confidence “until the end of this term of council when the 2022 local government elections have concluded.”

When asked about the specific date of release, Ms Cernovskis said “this is as determined by council”.

Records show on November 22, 2019, councillors discussed the chief executive officer’s probationary period at a special council meeting, with the resolution and minutes kept in confidence.

On December 3, 2019, a notice of rescission/amendment was made on the chief executive officer’s probationary period at a special council meeting.

At the same meeting, a notice of motion was moved relating to the chief executive officer’s probationary period.

A final motion – titled chief executive officer performance review committee – was discussed, by records indicate the element to be kept confidential was “not applicable”.

GRANT DISTRICT COUNCIL

Grant District Council discussed 30 items in-camera, resulting in 31 resolutions being made in confidence – 9pc – of the total resolutions made in 2019/20.

Comparatively, council entered confidence 39 times in 2018/19, 23 times during 2017/18 and 37 times in 2016/17.

The multi-million dollar Mount Gambier Airport upgrade, the potential use of council land for commercial activity and the release of council’s Cultural Review were among the items discussed privately last financial year.

Two items relating to Regional Express Airlines were considered privately, with councillors voting to partially release the meeting minutes and retaining some documents for 20 years after the end of any partnership agreement with the airline.

Records show councillors discussed chief executive officer recruitment three times in the span of a week in August 2019 in relation to then acting chief executive Jane Fetherstonhaugh.

Earlier that month, councillors supported a $1000 performance bonus for Ms Fetherstonhaugh behind closed doors.

The released confidential minutes show on August 19, 2019, councillors voted in support of offering Ms Fetherstonhaugh the position of chief executive officer.

On August 21, 2019, a special confidential meeting was held to increase the offer to $165,000 “with no other changes to terms and conditions”.

Less than a week later, elected members voted to increase the offer to $175,000, with Ms Fetherstonhaugh required to provide a formal response to former councillor Jody Elliot by close of business on August 28.

Councillors agreed should the offer be rejected, Mayor Richard Sage was authorised to make contact with the second candidate with a starting offer of $155,000 plus benefits.

Ms Fetherstonhaugh ultimately declined the position – which led to the appointment of Darryl Whicker – telling The Border Watch in October 2019 she would have accepted if the “non-negotiable condition” of Mr Sage committing to following the Charter of Agreed Behaviours, which was adopted by council in June 2019.

On September 2, 2019, councillors discussed two reports – staff affairs and personal affairs – in confidence due to the unreasonable disclosure of information.

Personal affairs was also raised to discuss the chief executive officer’s probationary period and operational savings, with the latter remaining in confidence.

WATTLE RANGE COUNCIL

A PROPOSAL to restructure engineering services, “unreasonable customer conduct” and the sale of properties for unpaid rates were among the 24 confidential items considered by Wattle Range Council in 2019/20.

During the private meetings, 42 resolutions were made in confidence.

The number marked an increase from 2018/19, in which 40 resolutions were considered in confidence – 7pc of total resolutions.

In 2017/18, Wattle Range discussed 30 confidential items, 26 in 2016/17, 16 in 2015/16 and 16 in 2014/15.

Council voted to retain a number of items in confidence – including a motion of notice from December 2018 on the Millicent and District Community Club, a once-touted site of the proposed council office.

The minutes, report and attachments of a secondary discussion on the Community Club on February 12, 2019 also remains in confidence, despite the property being sold and council resolving to progress the project at the old netball clubroom site.

Wattle Range Council chief executive Ben Gower said the results of both documents could be released at an upcoming review of confidentiality orders.

“Once or twice a year we do a review and release all of those, that is probably timely we do that as it is all behind us now,” he said.

“In the end, we came out of confidence in all of that as we progressed the decision because it was in the public interest and eventually a councillor moved the Community Club as a potential council site at an open forum.”

A Food Precinct Study has also remained in confidence with council citing the commercial information of 11 companies who were interviewed and provided information within the study.

The matter also relates to a report that identifies land options for future development that could provide a commercial advantage onto a third party.

An item titled “engineering services restructure” was also discussed in confidence as it related to personal affairs and was not considered a matter of pubic knowledge.

Mr Gower said councillors discussed items in confidence during most meetings to consider commercially sensitive information.

“Nearly every single council meeting we will go into confidence at least once and it’s normally about procurement such as as truck, a tractor or a grader, but it is always carefully thought out,” he said.

“It is because the details has financial submissions and it is not fair in a competitive environment to share that with other competitors.

“Other than procurement, moving into confidence doesn’t come up very often and nor should it.

“There’s not much we do that has to be hidden from public scrutiny.”

ROBE DISTRICT COUNCIL

THIRTY-three items , including a ‘Culture Check’, leases on the Robe Medical Centre and the Robe Marina and an “offer to settle outstanding dispute” were privately discussed by Robe District Council in 2019/20.

The region’s smallest council discussed the second largest number of items in confidence, with just 11 items released to the public.

Publicly released documents from the confidential meetings show no resolutions were made, with minutes noting “discussion took place in respect to item”.

Elected members discussed the ‘Capacity and Capability Review’ – which examined the existing council structure – four times, including an item regarding voluntary separation packages.

The budget impact of the Capacity and Capability Review was discussed in-camera in February 2020, with updated costs for the implementation considered in private one month later.

Confidentiality provisions were also invoked to discuss a development proposal for Robe’s Lake Butler Marina, a request for the release of legal advice and an item titled “Robe History”.

Three items relating to carparking funding deed were considered in private, while two items on rates hardship were also discussed behind closed doors.

65 orders stemming back to 2009 remain in confidence, including items relating to former Mayor William Peden both as a council representative and a ratepayer.

Information retained in confidence related to King V William Peden and the District Council of Robe is bound by a confidential court order.

This financial year, councillors considered the “unreasonable behaviour – Mr Peden” in confidence, with its release kept private until further order of council.

In 2018/19 and 2017/18 Robe considered 26 items in confidence, 25 in 2016/15, 23 in 2015/16 and 21 in 2014/15.

KINGSTON DISTRICT COUNCIL

During the 15 meetings held during 2019/20, Kingston District Council invoked an order to discuss items 21 times behind closed doors.

Council considered three requests from ratepayers to keep an additional dog, with a by-law restricting residents within the Kingston township to two dogs.

Individuals living outside a township with three dogs – other than working dogs – must seek council permission to keep any additional dogs.

During the 15 Kingston District Council meetings held during the 2019/20 year, elected members supported 21 times – representing 10.9pc of all matters considered by council.

Cape Jaffa Sand Management and a review of Cape Jaffa agreements were among the items discussed behind closed doors.

Tenders for seven services – including rural road maintenance and reseal works – were considered in private.

Councillors resolved to keep 18 of the 21 items confidential.

Currently, 14 confidential orders remain active, while 19 confidential orders expired and were released from confidentiality during the 2019/20 year.

Kingston District Council moved to confidence 33 times in 2018/19, 17 times in 2017/18, 36 times in 2016/17 and 24 times in 2015/16.

NARACOORTE LUCINDALE COUNCIL

Elected members entered into confidence 25 times during the 2019/20 financial year, with a majority of items relating to tender contracts.

A $900,000 upgrade to Robertson Street, Naracoorte, an extension of the Naracoorte Cemetery and the Naracoorte Library design brief were among the items discussed privately last financial year.

Council discussed a $89,000 increase to the Robertson Street upgrade following a revision in asphalt and line marking costs.

The beautification of the road and streetscape along the road, located in the town’s central business district, was increased to $942,161 after increases to asphalt and linemarking.

Elected members supported a staff recommendation to award the asphalt contract to Fulton Hogan at a cost of up to $190,000 – an increase from an initial estimate of $121,000.

The $2m Naracoorte Library Project was considered in confidence four times, with council purchasing the former Naracoorte Herald building on Smith Street to redevelop the facility for $605,000.

Naracoorte Lucindale Council chief executive Trevor Smart said the item was considered in confidence to protect council’s negotiating position on the scope of the offer to be made to the building offer and the conditions of the offer.

Mr Smart said the old library site, which is located adjacent to the council office building, required some significant repairs.

“Council had worked through a number of scenarios including repair and renovate; renew and extend; and demolish,” he said.

“The footprint of this building is fairly minimal for a library.”

Mr Smart said council was currently finalising the new library design and aimed to go to tender and construction and fit out of the new library in the first half of 2021.

Since council closed the former library in mid-2016, services have been provided from a temporary site on Smith Street.

On February 25, councillors awarded the Naracoorte Library Design Services contract to Brett Julian Architect for $90,150.

Elected members also voted in support of a $68,779 contract addition for stage two of the Naracoorte Cemetery extension, which will result in the completion of a whole row of plots excluding landscaping and roadway sealing.

The total project cost was $191,107.

Two items relating to the sale of land on an unmade road reserve remain in confidence, with release slated when the matter is finalised.

TATIARA DISTRICT COUNCIL

Tatiara District Council entered into confidence 21 times in 2019/20, with a majority of items (14) relating to tenders and the supply of goods.

Of the times council invoked the confidentiality provisions, 14 reports and minutes were released, while seven remain confidential.

Tatiara District Council chief executive Anne Champness said the confidentiality provisions were mostly used to discuss tenders and contracts.

She said council publicly released confidential documents after tenders had been signed.

“It is unfair to release all of the quotes to the public because it allows others to see all the financial information,” she said.

“When you sign the contract, you should release it.”

On December 10, 2019, elected members privately supported an allocation of up to $150,000 to negotiate the early termination of the Bordertown Caravan Park lease agreement.

Council retained management and administration of the publicly-controlled park, with councillors voting to support development of the facility, including construction of three new cabins.

At a special council meeting held in confidence on December 17 last year, elected members moved that council apply for $700,000 for the construction of seven two-bedroom cabins and one three-bedroom cabin to the Federal Government’s Building Better Regions Fund.

Council also allocated up to $350,000 to the project from its 2019/20 budget and a further allocation of $350,000 from its 2020/21 budget to match the funding amount.

Tatiara District Council was successful in receiving the funds, which will be used to construct new cabins, the removal of permanent onsite vans and outdated cabins, separation of the caravan/RV area and cabins and improved landscaping to improve overall park appearance and amenities.

A 50-page feasibly study on the proposed Bordertown Health Hub was also discussed in confidence, with the independent report determining a $6.7m cost for the establishment of a centralised health facility.

The report determined a majority of respondents in favour of a co-located health hub, with service identified in specialist areas such as eye specialists, dermatologists and psychology/mental health.

Council voted to receive the report and invited interested parties to progress the proposal to the next stage.

An increase to the Northern Adelaide Waste Management Authority recycling and reprocessing fee, pump track design and construction for Keith and Bordertown and the Community Development Grants Programme – Hawke House are among the items that have remained in confidence.

Tatiara District Council entered into confidence 23 times in 2018/29, 12 in 2017/18, six in 2016/17 and nine in 2015/16.