Ratepayer protection bill would review council confidentiality laws

Photo: Shutterstock.
Photo: Shutterstock.

Details of two secret land deals in Murray Bridge would have been made public if new rules proposed for councils had been in effect a year ago, The Standard can reveal.

Councils would be limited in their ability to shut the public out of their meetings under a proposal currently before South Australia's parliament.

They would no longer be allowed to close their doors to protect the commercial interests of companies or individuals – something the Murray Bridge council did 16 times in 2018.

Some of those discussions were relatively trivial – for example, details of the council's dealings with the Murray Bridge Rowing Club about the construction of its new building, which was public knowledge anyway.

But other confidential items such as a "sale of surplus land", in May, and an "unsolicited proposal to purchase land from council", in September, would have to be made public.

An exception would remain only for matters where going public was likely to prevent a company from supplying such information to the council in future; and where the council's interest in that information outweighed the public's interest in transparency.

In introducing the so-called "ratepayer protection" bill to Parliament late last year, Labor MP Clare Scriven said it would increase accountability and transparency.

It would also require councils to:

  • reveal how much elected members and staff were spending on ratepayer-funded credit cards and travel, and how much chief executives were paid
  • measure their performance against other councils
  • explain when major projects were likely to result in rate rises

The proposal passed through SA's upper house in November, though Liberal MP David Ridgway criticised it for reasons not related to the secrecy clause.

He said the state government would come up with its own proposal during 2019, in consultation with councils.