The brick wall of secrecy and confidentiality is commonly hit at the council level as well as the state and federal government ones.
The brick wall of secrecy and confidentiality is commonly hit at the council level as well as the state and federal government ones. FL-photography

11 times Gympie council kept ratepayers in the dark

GOVERNMENTS are supposed to answer to the public but an alarming encroachment of restrictive laws is making it easier for officials and bureaucrats alike to deny access to information the public has a right to know.

This tightening is not limited to the federal and state levels.

Here are 11 recent local examples of when The Gympie Times and the public hit a brick wall of of council secrecy and confidentiality.

1. Rattler Business Case

Mary Valley Rattler, Old Gympie Railway Station, Wednesday October 2, 2019. New photo - horizontal.
Mary Valley Rattler. Donna Jones

THE return of the Mary Valley Rattler was given a new lease on life after four years thanks to a business case developed in March 2016, right before the council election.

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But the business case, the argument as to how the Rattler could return and why it should, was not released to the public until six months later - after the council had tried to secure State funding and slugged ratepayers with the $65 Economic Levy, with the train earmarked as the first beneficiary.

2. The state of the Rattler tracks

Gympie Rattler getting back on track.
Gympie Rattler getting back on track. Renee Albrecht

History repeats.

The controversial and expensive return of the Rattler was well underway, with $12 million committed, when these documents were leaked to The Gympie Times.

They provided the public's first look at the condition of the tracks, and revealed they had deteriorated extensively since they were inspected as part of the business cases' development.

Not long after members of the public began asking if the project was on track for further cost blow outs.

It was.

3. Gympie Golf Course sale

Gympie Golf course.
Gympie Golf course. Renee Albrecht

The item in which Cr Dan Stewart was forced to apologise for being honest.

Council minutes from that time reveal a confidential discussion about "a proposed community development facility” under the portfolio of Tourism Sport and Recreation, in the council directorate of Corporate Services.

No mention of the golf course, and radio silence on the possibility of a sale price of at least $2.5 million.

Nor was there ever mention that after any sale had been ruled out in October 2016, in mid-2017 the council was reportedly still exploring the possibility of running the golf course and in August 2017 was again looking at purchase options.

4. Water overhaul

The price of water from the Wyreema standpoint has almost doubled in the new water year.
Water. John McCutcheon

The driver behind the controversial changes to Gympie region's water services remained a mystery for almost three years until The Gympie Times won an appeal for the documents under Right to Information.

The overhaul was agreed to behind closed doors, and even the Office of the Information Commissioner noted scant detail was ever given by the council about why it made extensive changes to one of its core services.

And that's to say nothing of the debate over the abrupt departure of then-head of engineering Bob Fredman; a debate which was itself gagged from public discussion in a 2016 council meeting.

5. How the staff feels

Council workers fixing highway Curra.
Photo: Renee Pilcher / The Gympie Times
Council workers. Renee Pilcher

How does Gympie council's more than 450 staff feel about the organisation?

Toowoomba, Brisbane and Sunshine Coast ratepayers have a clear idea about their council's internal health.

Gympie's ratepayers, not so much.

The results of multiple staff surveys over the years has never been released except for one moment in 2015 when select results were used to shoot down chatter about staff being unhappy.

An RTI request for the surveys was denied by the council; it is being appealed through the Office of the Information Commissioner.

6. A popular committee

Gympie councilor Dan Stewart.
Cr Dan Stewart. Renee Albrecht

Even councillors have questioned the growing trend of moving items behind closed doors.

Cr Dan Stewart criticised it in December 2018 when he said four items - including environmental projects, the aerodrome, and part of the Rattler restoration - should have been held in open meetings.

He was the only councillor to vote against them being moved into committee.

"It was not like we were drafting a new budget, or even making major changes, that might have caused people profiteering if they knew what was proposed,” he said at the time.

There are five items down to be discussed in committee at this week's meeting.

7. General business killed

First Council meeting after the 2016 election. Photo Renee Albrecht/Gympie Times
First Council meeting after the 2016 election. Renee Albrecht

The axing of general business was one of the first changes adopted by this council.

It was a replaced by a notified motion system in which items must be raised at least seven days beforehand, and approved by the mayor and CEO.

This has created an environment many observers have called scripted.

And hot button controversial items - like legal action against a Facebook page or the departure of Bob Fredman - have mostly avoided ever being discussed at all.

8. Facebook threat

Online networking on facebook.Photo: Brett Wortman / Sunshine Coast Daily
Facebook. Brett Wortman

Speaking of legal action, the controversial Gympie Regional Forum found itself on the receiving end of a legal letter in 2016 over allegedly defamatory comments and demanding the page be shut down.

The letter was sent by firm MinterEllison acting "for Gympie Regional Council”, but at the following meeting it was suggested the action was taken on behalf of individual council members, not the organisation.

Several councillors - including one named in the letter - said the first they heard about it being sent was after if had already arrived in the Forum moderator's letterbox.

Cr Smerdon's attempt to raise the issue at the meeting was shut down on the grounds any discussion would happen in committee.

Legal experts have pointed out defamation action funded by the large pool of ratepayer money "can obviously be used to chill people, especially in local areas”.

9. Aurizon's Rattler involvement

Mary Valley Rattler
Mary Valley Rattler.

Rail freight company Aurizon was championed as "in alliance” with CR Rail in the council's first press release about the train's winning tender.

The company denies any alliance between itself and CR Rail.

So, did councillors sign off on the blow-out plagued Rattler under the impression Aurizon was to play a big part in itts return?

Councillors cannot pass on any information from these reports without breaching the Local Government Act, so who knows if the public will ever know.

10. Disclosure Log

Gympie Town Hall
Gympie Town Hall. Leeroy Todd

At a recent council workshop, staff revealed Information Privacy and Right to Informtaion requests played a "notable role” in the workload for the council's governance department.

However the council has never maintained a disclosure log to list and give access to any released documents, despite them being encouraged by the Office of the Information Commissioner as"an important strategy for proactive disclosure of government-held information to the community”.

"Queensland government agencies should publish as much information released to applicants under the Right to Information Act 2009 in their disclosure logs as possible, unless exceptions and limitations apply,” Information Commissioner calls them Rachael Rangihaeata says.

11. Workshop briefings

The once-confidential workshops were opened to the public in 2015 but an extended confidential session still follows.

And details on what is to be discussed at the meeting are scant: unless the public attends, information is restricted to line items printed on one sheet of paper, and the length of the session open to the public can be miniscule: the record so far is five minutes.