GRAEME MACKENZIE is the CEO at Fremantle city council. In this week’s THINKING ALLOWED he takes issue with the Herald’s reporting.
Thinking Allowed…or is it? The name of this column is called Thinking Allowed, which is quite appropriate for the topic I wanted to talk about.
You may have seen recent reports in this paper about some internal discussions which have taken place at the City of Fremantle. One regarded an opportunity to purchase units in the new Fort Knox development in Fremantle’s emerging East End, the other to restore the historic Henderson Street warders’ cottages. There have been many others but these are most topical.
Unfortunately, this paper sensationalised what were really just informal discussions about possibilities to benefit both the city and the community. The informal discussions were unfairly labelled as being “secret plans” and of the city making promises regarding funding respectively.
In the case of the Fort Knox development and the possibility of the city purchasing units, I would like to take you through the process for any contracts being entered into.
First, and only if our internal discussions and preliminary investigations suggest there might be an appropriate course of action, we would need to bring an item to the elected council, which then would discuss the merits of any proposal.
If the council determined there was merit in proceeding further, a detailed business case would be prepared for presentation to council. That business case would in turn result in a business plan being prepared for release for public comment. Only following consideration of public comment on that business plan could the council then undertake a transaction to enter into any purchase arrangement.
This process applies to any contract of significance being entered into by the city.
So, using the phrase “secret plan”, as the Herald has done, is something that could not be further from the truth.
As a local government organisation we are constantly looking at ways to make Fremantle a better place to benefit the local community, local businesses and visitors to Fremantle. We do a lot of brainstorming and innovating—some of it makes its way into policy and decision-making and some of it doesn’t. This is quite normal and every good business or organisation works in similar ways. Where things are a little different for us is that, as a government organisation, we are under constant scrutiny on decisions that we make.
It would be fair to say local government is the most transparent level of government in Australia, and local government in WA is probably the most accountable and transparent in Australia. This is rightfully so, as we are making decisions that affect our community and we are spending public money.
Transparency is an obligation we take very seriously. Having said this, the ability to carry out internal discussions, to think about and innovate solutions for Fremantle’s challenges, without being wrongly accused of making “secret plans” or other such things, is crucial to ensuring we make decisions which are relevant, innovative, free from bias and above all make Fremantle an even better place to live work and play.
As people, we make mistakes and are not perfect, but surely the city is allowed to have informal discussions about issues and opportunities without being accused of secrecy? Surely, thinking IS allowed at the City of Fremantle?!
As Fremantle’s independent newspaper the Herald, just like the city, has an obligation to keep the community informed and to be relevant.
Using the front page as a vehicle for articles to peddle mistrust and suspicion is not only inaccurate it is not in the best interest of readers. Ironically, the biggest event in Australia at the time, the Fremantle Street Arts Festival, did not get a single mention in last week’s Herald. Disappointing to say the least.
The city will continue to operate in the best interests of our community, ethically and transparently. We only hope the Herald will do the same from now on.
THE HERALD RESPONDS
We sttand by our stories and their accuracy. The council was discussing entering into significant property acquisitions, and the public—our readers—had no idea those talks were underway. The “informal discussions” were so advanced lawyers had been paid to look over documents. We made no judgement about the merits of the decision to keep the matter out of the public eye. We reported.
Mr Mackenzie (and the mayor, an unceasing critic of our reporting) seem to believe the Herald’s job is chief cheerleader for council initiatives and to engage in what’s known in the craft as “boosterism” (the “everything’s great! roll up! roll up!” style of reporting). Life would be so much easier for us if we did what they wanted: Easy, positive, fluffy stories about how visionary the council was and what a bright future the city had under its progressive leadership.
We’d be swimming in council advertising and our journalists wouldn’t have to hear the groans as they called council members for comment. But we’ve never done that and we never will. It’s not our job to criticise the council for the sake of it but neither is it to promote it. Our job is to report, and any reading of any edition of the Herald will see the paper carries a mix of stories that are positive and negative, heavy and light.
For more than 23 years the Herald has reported without fear or favour. We don’t set out to write any story in a particular way in order to achieve a particular end—we write what we think our readers will want to know. The stories take us where they will. We are led by the facts and the comments we gather. The stories guide our hand.
We may choose what angle to lead with but we don’t manipulate it in order to achieve an outcome, good or bad. We always—always—lead with what we consider to be the most newsworthy element, no matter how inconvenient or unpleasant it may be for the council, for readers, or ourselves.