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Accountability - Access to Meetings and Documents

Council meetings are open to the public and specified documents associated with meetings are publicly available. This is a fundamental principle underpinning open and accountable government: the right of citizens’ access to decision-making processes is a very important part of maintaining public confidence in Councils.

In limited circumstances the Local Government Act enables Councils to meet in confidence to discuss a particular item and to make an order to restrict public access to documents before Council or a Council committee discussions about that item.

Councils are required to prepare and adopt a ‘code of practice’ regarding their application of the confidentiality provisions (s92), and follow the relevant steps set out in its public consultation policy before adopting, altering or substituting its code of practice.

Councils may also participate in informal gatherings or discussions, provided that delegated powers are not exercised, or a matter is not dealt with in such a way as to reach a decision outside a normally constituted meeting. The following are examples of informal gatherings or discussions:

  • planning sessions associated with developing policies or strategies;
  • briefing or training sessions;
  • workshops; and
  • social gatherings to encourage informal communication between members or between members and staff.

Frequently asked questions about access to Council meetings and documents:

  1. Can the public be excluded from Council meetings?
  2. What access does the public have to Council and Committee meeting documents?
  3. What can I do if I think a Council’s decision to exclude the public is not reasonable?
  4. What Council documents are available to the public?

    1. Can the public be excluded from Council meetings?

    Section 90(3) lists the following special circumstances under which a Council or committee may make an order to exclude the public from meetings.
    • A personal matter concerning a member of the staff of the Council
    • Personal hardship of any resident or ratepayer
    • Commerical information of a confidential nature
    • Security of the Council, members, staff or property
    • Legal duty of confidence such as a court order
    • Information relating to litigation which will or may affect Council
    • Legal advice or specialist professional advice
    • Tenders for the supply of goods or services, or carrying out works
    • Information about the health or financial position, or relevant to the safety of a person

    The potential for a discussion to cause embarrassment to the Council, Committee, members or employees of the Council, or to result in a loss of confidence in the Council or Committee are not relevant to whether the public should be excluded from a Council or Committee discussion.


    2. What access does the public have to Council and Committee Meeting documents?

    All reports to Council or committee meetings are available to the public except where the matter is heard in confidence (under any of the grounds set out above) and the meeting orders the documents be kept confidential. The order must specify the date or circumstances when it will expire or when it must be reviewed. Orders that operate for more than 12 months must be reviewed by Council at least once a year.

    The exclusion provision cannot be used to keep the identity of a successful tenderer or of land acquired or disposed of by Council confidential.


    3. What can I do if I think Council’s decision to exclude the public is not reasonable?

    Firstly, contact the Council and let them know of your concern and ask for a review of the decision. You could ask for your grievance to be dealt with through Council’s internal review procedure complaints and grievances

    If this action does not resolve the matter satisfactorily, you could contact the State Ombudsman’s office for advice. The Ombudsman has specific powers to investigate complaints of unreasonable exclusion of the public, or refusal of access to meeting documents. Under the 2003 Amendments to the Act, the Ombudsman has the power to conduct a review of the practices and procedures of Councils relating to access to meetings and documents on his or her own initiative.


    4. What Council documents are available to the public?

    Section 132 and Schedule 5 set out certain documents which are available to the public. These documents might also be available on the Council website. The documents include:
    • Reports on representation reviews
    • Register of elected members’ interests
    • Register of members’ allowances
    • Register of employees’ salaries and benefits
    • Register of community land
    • Register of public roads
    • Register of by-laws
    • Candidates’ campaign donations returns
    • Code of conduct for elected members
    • Code of conduct for employees
    • Code of practice – access to meetings and documents
    • Notice and agenda for Council, committee and elector meetings
    • Documents and reports to the Council or committee, not ordered to be confidential (note Freedom of Information provisions)
    • Recommendations adopted by resolution of Council
    • Record of delegations
    • Contract and tender policies
    • Policy for the reimbursement of members' expenses
    • Strategic management plans
    • Annual budget (after adoption by Council)
    • Audited financial statements
    • Annual report
    • Assessment record
    • Rating policy
    • List of fees and charges
    • Public consultation policies
    • Management plans for community land (to be in place by 1 January 2005)
    • Policy on the making of orders
    • Grievance procedures for the review of Council decisions
    • Charter for subsidiaries established by the Council or for which the Council is a constituent Council

    The above provisions are in addition to the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act where Councils must make all of their ‘policy’ documents available to the public. Such documents include those containing guidelines, rules, policies, practices and procedures used by Councils that may affect citizens’ rights.

    With respect to an order to keep documents confidential under the Local Government Act, a person may make a Freedom of Information application to access such documents. The application will be assessed in accordance with the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act.