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Councillors reject move to secrecy

06 Nov 2019

Councillors reject move to secrecy Image

By Meg Hill

The City of Melbourne has delayed a proposal to move its biggest business deals behind closed doors after a report from management was met with scepticism from councillors.

Councillors are required to approve contracts valued over $2 million and currently review tenders in public session unless an exception is made.

Council management proposed on October 29 to switch the policy to one of confidentiality by default.

But councillors unanimously passed a motion raised by Cr Rohan Leppert to postpone the decision for a month and requested additional advice and options.

“It’s an ongoing difficult balance between ensuring we’re getting the absolute best deals for our ratepayers while also making as many decisions as possible in public,” Cr Leppert said.

“I had a look at the way some other councils do things and I think it’s fair to say that there is no overwhelming uniform way that most councils do deal with this.”

“I think it’s difficult for us to go from a regime of default open to default closed.”

Former councillor Stephen Mayne said the proposal would represent “the biggest backward step on council transparency over the past three years”.

“You absolutely have to have flexibility, some tenders have to made in confidential, but the idea that everything should be confidential is a joke,” Mr Mayne said.

Mr Mayne chaired the City of Melbourne finance committee from 2012 to 2016 and advocated for the switch to a public process that was passed in 2013.

Mr Mayne said although there may have been a complaint or legal dispute over a tender process, council’s public explanation that the proposal was made to protect against legal, commercial and reputational risks was “threadbare.”

“They’ve got to justify this. It’s up to council to say what it was. They’re just listing unspecified risks,” he said.

“Everything is a trade-off and you’ve got competing interests in transparent decision making. It just requires a policy of public where possible and private where necessary.”

“If you end up at 50-50 that’s fine, but the default position of everything being confidential is ridiculous and should be rejected out of hand.”

“I’m glad to see that councillors questioned the proposal.”

Tender processes for contracts usually apply to council’s services provision but have also been used for asset sales.

The City of Melbourne sold its troublesome Boyd Development to developer PDG in July for $16.5 million following what Lord Mayor Sally described at the time as “a competitive tender process.” However, the council has refused to release additional information.

Mr Mayne said that confidentiality was most commonly required due to ongoing negotiations or criticism of tenderers.

“Cases of confidentiality would be balanced by a good procedure in announcing the outcome – even just the number of tenders and their names,” he said.

PDG had previously won a tender process for the Queen Victoria Market Munro site.

“When we did a shortlist of five for the Munro development, we released the five names.”

“The officers resisted it all the way, but I insisted we say how many tenderers and their names.”

“They announced the outcome with Boyd, but it was disappointing they didn’t reveal the number of bidders.”

Southbank Residents’ Association (SRA) president Tony Penna also said he opposed the proposal and that the council should provide the community with more information after deals like Boyd were completed.

“They should tell us who the tenderers were and what they offered,” he said.

“The integrity of the process and the outcome is critical, it’s public money and ratepayers’ money.”

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