FREMANTLE council’s decision to close its Audit and Risk Committee to the public “gives rise to some serious questions” according to a former local government CEO.
The Herald contacted former East Fremantle council CEO Stuart Wearne, an expert on council governance and legislative requirements, following former MP Adele Carles’ call for Freo to drop its culture of secrecy (“Too secret,” Herald, June 19, 2021).
Mr Wearne said all council and committee meetings were required, by law, to be open to the public.
“The discussion of particular matters at those meetings may be closed to members of the public, however this applies only to matters which meet the criteria for doing so as set out in section 5.23(2) of the Local Government Act,” Mr Wearne said.
“When the item which the presiding member believes should be discussed in confidence is reached, elected members must vote on whether that matter is to be discussed confidentially and if this is so resolved, the reason why needs to be given and recorded in the minutes.”
After that the public should be allowed back in and be advised of what the decision taken behind closed doors was, with that decision also recorded in the minutes.
Mr Wearne noted that according to the council’s meeting schedule its audit and risk committee was off-limits to the public under a blanket statement that it’s because they’re being held in the city’s temporary home at Fremantle Oval.
Mr Wearne doesn’t believe that’s allowable under the legislation and also wondered if elected members had voted for this to occur or whether it had been an administrative decision.
“I do not believe the council has the right to make that decision and if the council believes otherwise, they must provide the legal basis for their position.”
He said the exclusion of Ms Carles and her small team of residents was even more concerning given the item they wanted to hear about, a valuer’s report on recent changes affecting the city’s asset base, wasn’t listed as a confidential item.
Only one item on the agenda was listed as confidential, which Mr Wearne said showed the council was aware there wasn’t a blanket confidentiality covering the whole meeting.
“That only makes the exclusion of members of the public even more questionable,” he said.
He also picked up that the confidential item, a risk report, might have had a valid reason given for needing to be discussed privately, but the minutes hadn’t noted a vote by members on the matter, “which is a further lawful requirement”.
Another legal requirement Ms Carles and her supporters were denied was a public question time, which must be provided at all council meetings. However this was left off the agenda despite “deputations” and “special deputations” staying on. Mr Wearne said the council couldn’t have it both ways.
“The council needs to get its act together in terms of proper process,” Mr Wearne said.
“Locking the public out of a meeting which was required by law to be open to the public is not a good look.”
by STEVE GRANT